Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 483 pages; 2009.

We’ve all experienced those dreadfully uncomfortable moments when a misbehaving child is left to run riot in a public place, perhaps a park or a restaurant or a shop, while the parents are oblivious to the commotion or are unable to control it. But how many of us would step in and slap a child that doesn’t belong to us? That quintessential 21st century moral dilemma is at the heart of Christos Tsiolkas‘ award-winning novel, The Slap.

Tsiolkas, an Australian author of Greek parentage, sets his latest door-stopper in Melbourne’s middle-class suburbia. The titular slap happens at a family barbecue, when a man slaps a bratty four-year-old child who does not belong to him. This one event is to have drastic repercussions on all of those people present. It tests friendships, marriages and family relationships, and it divides people into two distinct groups: those that think the child deserved it, and those that think the slap constitutes child abuse.

In prose that is as bold and as abrasive as the slap at the heart of this novel, Tsiolkas tells the story of what happens through the eyes of eight different characters: Hector, a 43-year-old first generation Australian of Greek parentage, who is the host of the barbecue; Aisha, Hector’s Anglo-Indian wife, who runs her own vet clinic; Harry, Hector’s businessman cousin, who slaps the child; Manolis, Hector’s father; Rosemary, the mother of the child; Anouk, the childhood friend of both Aisha and Rosemary, who is a successful television script writer; Connie, a sixth former who works part-time at Aisha’s vet clinic and is having an affair with Hector; and Richie, Connie’s gay teenage friend.

That’s quite a cast of characters, yet in Tsiolkas’ hands he makes them all vibrant, all different and all incredibly flesh-and-blood real, so that it’s quite impossible to lose track of who is who. The most impressive thing is his ability to get inside the heads of such vastly different people, from an arrogant businessman with gangster tendencies, to a teenage girl caught between childhood and adulthood, and make them all totally believable.

The structure of the book, which follows a linear narrative, avoids going over the same old ground from different points of view. This means the court case, which results from the aforementioned slap, concludes about half-way through the novel. And yet, despite this, the story doesn’t lose its focus or its momentum. (I’m reminded of Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which has a similar narrative structure, and follows the repercussions of a slightly more surreal event: the brief abduction of a young boy. But it rehashed scenes and conversations almost to the point of overkill.)

The Slap is by no means a perfect novel — sometimes the writing feels forced, especially when sketching in the back story for individual characters, and I suspect the numerous music references are going to date it quickly — but its ambition, its scope and the sheer force of the story-telling more than makes up for this. It’s a very bold book, full of sex, drugs, middle-aged angst and a lot of crude language.

But I loved it, and raced through it in just a matter of days, sneaking reading sessions in whenever I possibly could: in bed, on the tube, in my lunch-break, even while cooking the dinner! I think I was slightly enamoured of its quintessential Australian-ness, not just in its references to specific suburbs and streets, but in its depiction of Melbourne as a cultural melting pot full of people with racial, religious and political prejudices all jostling together in relative peace while an undercurrent of friction simmers just beneath the surface.

And, because Tsolkias isn’t much older than myself (he was editor of the student newspaper at Melbourne University when I was an undergrad), the book has a distinct Generation-X feel: it’s about us 40-somethings coming to terms with growing older, and I’ve not really come across that in fiction before. Nor have I come across a book that so beautifully captures John Howard’s Australia, full of people obsessed by possessions, caught up in consumerism and afraid that every Muslim is a terrorist.

The Slap also addresses middle class anxieties about parenting, home ownership and career progression. But ultimately it’s a book about people: what makes them tick and how they react differently to a situation which, in another age, would not have been considered an issue at all.

The Slap has won a whole host of awards, including the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2008, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book in 2009, the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2009 and the Nielsen Book Data Booksellers’ Choice Award in 2009. It was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award in 2009.

It will be published in the UK and the US by Penguin on April 27.

I’m not sure if it’s eligible for this year’s Booker; if it is, it deserves a spot on the short-list.

Andrew Rule, Australia, Author, Blake Publishing, Book review, John Silvester, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Leadbelly’ by Andrew Rule and John Silvester


Non-fiction – paperback; Blake Publishing; 288 pages; 2005.

Between 1995 and 2004 there were 34 underworld killings in Melbourne, Australia. Yes, 34. I don’t think there were that many deaths in six-and-a-half series of The Sopranos and that has to be one of the most violent TV shows ever broadcast.

According to the authors “the size of the death toll varies from source to source because opinions vary about when the ‘war’ began and who are casualties and who are not”. Even the concept of ‘war’ is disputed, because not all the murders are related, some are simply one-off hits to settle old scores. But police did establish that the bulk of the killings were part of a deadly feud between two rival gangs: the New Boys and the Carlton Crew.

Having followed this string of brutal and bloody murders from afar (I left Australia in mid-1998) via Melbourne’s The Age website, I was anxious to read this book to piece all the crimes together in my head as one long narrative. Unfortunately, the book’s structure doesn’t work like that. Instead, what you get is 29 self-contained chapters that look at each crime in isolation. I imagine they were written like this for newspaper publication, but even so, I found it annoyingly repetitive in places — explaining who characters are and how they are linked to each other and what terrible crimes they have committed — which wears very thin very quickly.

And the prose style is terribly tabloid, surprising given that it’s written by two journalists for whom I have the utmost respect (Andrew Rule’s Strict Rules, a non-fiction account of his time touring the outback and staying with aboriginal communities, is extraordinarily good and worth tracking down if you get a chance, while Silvester’s day-to-day reporting for The Age on the crimes covered in Leadbelly has been thorough, tenacious and imminently readable over the course of this ongoing gangland feud). Still, I wonder how much of this “dumbed down” style is simply a reflection of the market to which this book is aimed. It’s not so much sloppily written, but it’s riddled with unwarranted editorialising that I found patronising.

But if the objective of Leadbelly is to take the “glamour” out of the underworld and to expose these criminals for the violent sociopaths that they are, then perhaps the authors have achieved their aim. Here’s what they say about the underworld,

 …that loose collection of individuals who live outside the law and associate with fellow criminals both in and out of prison. Myths have been built up about this antisocial sub-class, mainly because there is a perceived glamour about being on the wrong side of the law. Some people think gangsters are masterminds with the brains and the nerve to beat the system, ‘anti-heroes’ and ‘rebels’ who snub conformity to ‘live their own lives’.
The truth is most are too stupid, too lazy and too immoral to make a mark in the mainstream community. They don’t decide to opt out of orthodox, law-abiding society so much as drift into crime because it seems easy and smart compared with working for a living. Others, of course, are born into ciminal families, condemned by breeding and circumstances to a lifetime cycle of crime and punishment.
Many criminals are ‘stupid’ by conventional standards — in reading, writing and comprehension, for instance — but some survive and prosper, at least until the law or even more predatory criminals catch up with them. Some develop a rat cunning, which trumps ‘normal’ intelligence in their bleak and brutal world. They can’t read, yet can spy a police surveillance car a kilometre away. Others can barely count, yet can organise a bank robbery with split-second, military precision.

Rule and Silvester don’t pull their punches — they make it exceedingly clear throughout the 288 pages that make up this book that they do not have any sympathy whatsoever for the criminals. But by the same token they don’t necessarily hold the Victoria Police in great esteem either, a much-maligned force that has been accused, at one time or another, of being reactionary, trigger-happy* and corrupt.

When two young police constables were ambushed and fatally shot one early morning in 1988 — ten years before the ‘war’ began, mind you — as payback for the police shooting of a well-known armed robber 13 hours earlier, Rule and Silvester claim that some police “were so desperate to ‘get a result’ they wanted to use illegal tactics to get evidence before a court”. They add:

A huge investigation began within hours. Emotions ran high. Some police virtually declared war on the underworld. They wanted to mount raid after raid on known criminals and their relatives and associates. Many in the force saw this reaction as justified. Others saw it as blind rage, which would do nothing to gain evidence admitted in court.

This, essentially, is just the tip of the iceberg. The police’s handling of certain investigations, their surveillance methods and their sting operations come in for some serious questioning — and not just by the authors, there have been several public inquiries into specific incidents over the years which has resulted in changes to police working practices.

If you can forgive the slightly patronising Cops Vs Robbers tone of the book, what emerges is a fascinating account of Melbourne’s dark underbelly and the ongoing rivalry that exists between a police force under siege and the street savvy crims who think they can do what they like, when they like.

I am reliably informed that the 13-part drama series Underbelly, which is based on these true-life crimes and comes out on DVD in the UK next February, is better value than the book. I will keep you posted once I have watched it!

* In the ten years after 1986, police killed 30 people in Victoria, whilst NSW police killed 10 in the same period. I remember it well, because it seemed like every time you turned on the TV news there’d be another report of a citizen gunned down. But this book explains the roots of that trigger-happy situation. Apparently, in 1985, two police pulled over a panel van on the Hume Highway just north of Melbourne. They knew it was being driven by a known criminal who was likely to be armed and dangerous — in fact, they were tailing him at the time — but what they didn’t expect when they approached the car was the speed with which ‘Mad Max’ pulled out his pistol and fired off several shots. Rule and Silvester believe this random attack wormed its way into the collective psyche of the force, describing it as “the first milestone on a grim journey into hostile territory where almost every police officer felt threatened by unknown assailants who could be lurking in any car, any doorway, any hotel”.

Australia, Author, Book review, Mark Seymour, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors’ by Mark Seymour


Non-fiction – paperback; Viking; 391 pages; 2008.

If you are an Australian of a certain age and are a fan of pub rock, then chances are you have seen Hunters and Collectors perform live. And if you have seen them perform live then you no doubt know that this band is one of the most visceral live acts — second only to Midnight Oil — to ever come out of the Southern Hemisphere.

This book, written by lead singer Mark Seymour (who also happens to be the older brother of Crowded House’s bass player Nick Seymour), provides an inside look at what it was like fronting this powerhouse of a band for 18 years.

Of course, if you haven’t already guessed by now, I am a longtime Hunters and Collectors fan. But funnily enough, I always preferred seeing them live than listening to their records, which never seemed to convey the sheer velocity and passion of the music when performed in concert. In fact, this view of the band is not a unique one: they were critically acclaimed but never quite achieved the commercial success that comes so easily to other bands that do far less hard graft.

The book, which is currently only available in Australia (my sister gave me this copy when she visited me in London a couple of months ago), does help explain why the band was big in Australia but failed to crack the UK or American markets. Set up as an artistic collective, in which every member of the eight-piece band shared songwriting copyright and royalties, the decision-making process did not allow anyone to take the lead, nor did it allow the goal of commercial superstardom to become the over-riding aim. Seymour makes no bones about how frustrating this became, especially when, as lead singer, he was seen as the “face” of the band and its key lyricist.

At times the story reads a bit like a kid who has thrown the toys out of the pram. Seymour clearly thinks the band and, more importantly, himself deserved better. But he is also incredibly candid and so hard on himself that you kind of feel sorry for him.

I particularly liked his account of the band’s early days in London, where they were on the cusp of international success, only to blow it all when one member who’d had too much to drink insulted the record company. This incident — in a curry house in Shepherd’s Bush — would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t for the painful financial repercussions that followed. You get the sense that Hunters and Collectors never quite recovered from this monumental error.

All in all, Thirteen Tonne Theory (the name comes from the weight of equipment the band took on the road when they toured up and down the country) is an intriguing read. Written by a singer that crafted so many Australian anthems — Talking to a Stranger, Say Goodbye, Throw Your Arms Around Me and The Holy Grail — it’s a wonderful, if slightly worthy, warts-and-all account that fans will find fascinating.

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.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Peter Temple, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Bad Debts’ by Peter Temple


Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 336 pages; 2007. 

When I started reading Peter Temple’s much acclaimed The Broken Shore last summer, I became so enamoured with his writing style that before I’d even reached the halfway mark I rushed out and bought Bad Debts. I could sense it was going to be the start of a beautiful romance. Unfortunately, life got in the way — along with a few dozen other books that beckoned me — and it took me eight months to eventually get around to reading Bad Debts. The wait, I think, was worth it.

This book is not dissimilar to The Broken Shore in that it features a damaged protagonist with a slightly dodgy past and a penchant for spirited women. But that’s probably where the similarities end.

The main difference is the writing style. Bad Debts, which was written almost ten years before The Broken Shore, certainly feels less polished, the language is tougher, the dialogue more choppy. And in the best tradition of hardboiled noir, the main character, washed-up lawyer Jack Irish, treads a very fine line between enforcing the law and breaking it. You’re never quite sure whether you should admire him or despise him.

But Irish is not all he seems. His wife was murdered by a disgruntled client and he has buried his pain in years of serious alcohol addiction.

He’s also a habitual gambler and hangs out with a motley crew of horse racing men who make a living out of spotting rank outsiders and setting them up to win. He’s tough (as his work as a sometime debt collector and private investigator might suggest), very male (he loves Australian rules football, women and beer, not necessarily in that order), but he has a softer side too (in his spare time he learns cabinet making and he’s a bit of an amateur foodie).

Return of an old client

The book opens with Irish discovering a series of increasingly urgent voice messages on his answering machine. These have been left by a former client, Danny McKillop, urging him to meet in a pub car park because “I’m in deep shit”.

Unfortunately, the messages are a few days old, so Irish missed the meeting. He can’t place McKillop but when he later discovers that he’s been shot dead at the very time and place of the requested meeting, he doesn’t waste any time refreshing his memory. It turns out Irish defended McKillop when he was charged with the hit-and-run death of a young woman 10 years ago. He was found guilty, sentenced to prison and had only just been released.

The more Irish digs around, the more he begins to suspect that maybe McKillop has been set up. Joining forces with female journalist Linda Hillier — she later becomes his love interest — he manages to discover that the hit-and-run victim was a vocal campaigner against a proposed luxury residential development on an urban brownfield site. Was she silenced to allow the development to go ahead? Or is he joining dots that shouldn’t be joined?

What follows is an action-packed, fast-paced investigation that throws up a good mix of red herrings, Government cover-ups and dodgy dealings. And despite a few too-odd-to-be-true incidents (involving guns, police chases and a few ethically questionable journalistic practises), I struggled to guess the ending, the sign of a well-plotted and carefully crafted storyline.

Of course, as a former Melburnian, it would be remiss of me to not point out the distinctly Melburnian feel of this book. I loved the references to particular suburbs and streets, football teams and racecourses, and quietly chuckled at all the Australian colloquialisms that might actually stump Northern Hemisphere readers.

Bad Debts is a highly charged, highly entertaining read, and a wonderful introduction to the Jack Irish trilogy. One down, only two more to go!

Australia, Author, Book review, Elliot Perlman, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Three Dollars’ by Elliot Perlman


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 368  pages; 1999.

Eddie Harnovey, a 38-year-old chemical engineer, is married to a brilliant academic with whom he has a young daughter. He has a lovely house in the suburbs, a strong moral conscience and a kind, friendly nature. He is intelligent and well educated. Why, then, is his world falling around his feet? Why is he on the brink of bankruptcy with just $3 to his name?

This is the premise behind Elliot Perlman’s award-winning debut novel Three Dollars.

Essentially it charts the rise — and spectacular fall — of a young man, who could have had everything but looks set to lose it all, including his home and his marriage.

Set in Melbourne, Australia, during the economic rationalistic 1990s, it offers much commentary on our obsession with materialistic goods and the soulless nature of business and its pursuit of ever-increasing profit regardless of the environmental or social consequences. But it is also a look at how love can conquer all — as long as you have more than $3 to your name.

Overall, I much enjoyed this novel, reading it in the space of two days. As I mentioned when I reviewed Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity earlier this year, it was refreshing to read an Australian novel set in modern times in a city I once lived and worked in.

Three Dollars is a serious book, with plenty of negative things to say about modern life, but this is tempered by a strong comedic element throughout. Some of the situations in which Eddie finds himself  border on being hilarious.

Genre-wise I’m not sure whether this book should be classed as a family drama, social realism, an environmental thriller, a love story or a black comedy. It pretty much covers all these bases with aplomb.

There were several things that grated though: the author’s tendency to editorialise; his over reliance on co-incidence to move the narrative along; and the use of overly long, convoluted sentences, a kind of literary vaudeville that cluttered what was otherwise a very
well written story.

All in all, a highly entertaining and intelligent read with believable characters and a rollicking good plot.

Three Dollars won the 1999 Betty Trask Prize and the 1998 Melbourne Age Book of the Year. It was made into a movie in 2005.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elliot Perlman, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 624  pages; 2005.

At last. A book by an Australian novelist that isn’t about convicts or the pioneers or soldiers heading off to the Great War. This one is, in fact, set in modern times — or the economic rationalistic 1990s anyway.

What’s more it’s set in the Australian city I know best — Melbourne — at a time when I was a resident. How wonderful to recognise names and places in the pages of this well-crafted novel: I have downed many an ice-cold beer at The Esplanade Hotel, drooled over the cakes that line the bakeries along St Kilda’s Acland Street, gone shopping (for books!) in Chapel Street, admired the mansions in Toorak, seen the beach at the end of Glenhuntly Road, walked along the streets of Sorrento.

American readers, British readers will not understand this, because they are collectively spoilt by so many modern novels set in their homelands. But for me, as an Australian, I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to recognise such places in the pages of a book that wasn’t non-fiction. It made the story all that more real, and all that more special, to me.

Seven Types of Ambiguity — if you have got past my rambling purple-prosed introduction — is described on the blurb as a “tale of obsessive love” but I think that’s too simplistic a summary. It’s about an unemployed teacher briefly abducting Sam, the seven-year-old son of an ex-girlfriend, and the consequences of that one misguided incident and how it impacts on so many different lives in so many different ways.

It’s also a psychological thriller, a court room drama, a romance, a satire, an insightful commentary on modern day existence, morals and values, and a kind of literary juggernaut that borrows the title of a well known non-fiction book by William Empson on literary criticism. Throw in politics, big business and prostitution and pretty much every genre and theme is covered here. You certainly can’t complain about its breadth of scope.

The tale is told from seven different perspectives: Simon Heywood, the kidnapper; Dr Alex Klima, the psychiatrist who treats Simon but crosses a professional line to become his patient’s best friend; Anna Geraghty, Simon’s ex-girlfriend and mother of the kidnapped child; Joe Geraghty, Anna’s stockbroker husband; Angelique, the prostitute who is Simon’s current girlfriend and through some weird coincidence is also linked to Joe, one of her clients; Dennis Mitchell, an analyst and colleague of Joe’s, who later hooks up with Angelique (are you following me?); and Rachael Klima, Alex’s daughter, who, through another weird coincidence, becomes Sam’s girlfriend. Strangely enough the only person who does not narrate his side of the story is Sam, the central figure of the book.

As one would expect from the novel’s title, the theme of ambiguity is a constant. Indeed Perlman plays many literary tricks so that upon reading each new part it takes two or three pages for the reader to figure out who the new narrator is. I initially found this annoying, but I grew to like the surprise — I could never guess correctly no matter how much I thought I understood the characters.

Perlman also has his characters constantly misunderstand each other in conversation through the use of ambiguous language. For instance, when Anna is called to discuss Sam’s misbehaviour at school as a result of the kidnapping, the teacher treads softly and then completely misunderstands everything Anna says to her.

‘What’s he done?’ I asked. (…)

‘Well, he’s been calling out a lot…lately.’

‘What do you mean, lately?’ I asked the young teacher.

‘Well, since the…since the troubles.’

Since ‘the troubles’, she had said, not being able to even say the word ‘kidnapping’, so afraid, as the school had informed us in a carefully worded letter, were they of saying anything that might cause us offence and provoke litigation.

‘What, he’s been calling out since the beginning of inter-religious hostilities in Ireland?’ It was an off-the-cuff smartarse remark of the kind Simon could’ve made. (…)

‘Pardon me?’ the young teacher asked, completely at a loss.

‘I’m sorry, you said since “the troubles”, which is the name given to the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ireland. I’m sorry. I was just being flippant. Things have been–‘

‘No, I’m sorry, for my insensitivity. Geraghty? Of course, Sam Geraghty. I have to admit I’m not always up to date with my world events. Have you lost family recently in Northern Ireland? Did Sam know the deceased directly or is it a sort of…vicarious pain? We can schedule grief counselling if you like. It can be for the whole family if you would think it would help everyone…or anyone.’

And later, when Anna wants to check whether it is true that Simon once fell in the swimming pool and was rescued from drowning by Simon, who was stalking Anna at the time, her question is misunderstood by her young son.

‘Sam, you’ve never had an accident in the pool, have you?’


‘No, I didn’t think so.’

‘I haven’t, really, I haven’t.’

‘I believe you, Sam,’ I said, giving him a big hug. I didn’t want to release him.

‘I always go before I get in the pool.’

‘What, say that again, sweetie. What did you say?’

‘I don’t ever do it in the pool anymore.’

The book is littered with many, many more examples — too many to list here — although I had a lot of fun spotting them as I ploughed my way through this weighty book.

But the overriding message of Seven Types of Ambiguity is the ambiguity of human relationships and how two people in a relationship can interpret that relationship in entirely different ways through the prism of their own needs, desires and maturity.

For instance, we learn early on that Simon is obsessed with Anna, his ex-girlfriend, whom he is stalking. They have not been romantically involved for more than 10 years and yet he is still very much in love with her. It is creepy and skin-crawling stuff.  Later, when Anna narrates her part of the story, we get to find out exactly what she thinks of Simon – and let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected. So, perhaps too, Perlman is demonstrating that the reader’s relationship with fictional characters can be ambiguous too.

Despite my glowing five-star review, the book isn’t perfect. Sometimes the rehashing of scenes and conversations, albeit as seen from different points of view, grew wearisome. The voice and tone of each character was also remarkably similar, and some of the sentences were confusing and overly clunky. I also had trouble with the first chapter, not quite being able to work out who the narrator was, much less who he was addressing. And, finally, I found that I disliked Simon enormously despite the fact that most of the characters in this book seemed to like him very much. Why? He sounded like a pompous, too-clever-for-his-boots, obsessive, pain in the arse type of guy.

That said, I loved this amazing, brilliant and breath-taking book. I read it compulsively in just under a week, no mean feat for me, a slow and plodding reader at the best of times who usually squeezes in a 30 minute session before lights out each evening. But I found the story gripping, the characterisation impressive and the literary ‘acrobatics’ dazzling. More please!