2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Jessie Tu, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is Jessie Tu’s debut novel. It’s an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. It’s about trying to find your feet as an adult, breaking free of the shackles of your (infamous) past and starting again. But it’s also about love, sex, self-esteem, self-worth — and self-destruction.

Rebuilding a career

Written in forthright first-person prose, Tu rarely pulls her punches. She lays bare one young woman’s pain and confusion as she tries to rebuild a massively successful career that went bung when she had a breakdown on stage. Here, she presents Jena Lin as a dedicated and hardworking musician trying to reinvent herself in a small, incestuous classical music world in which she’s long been pegged as a child star whose flame has burnt out.

She has twin struggles to juggle. Professionally, she endures a chaotic schedule of rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice, while personally, she has to “manage” an overly strict mother, who finds it hard to let her little girl go.

One of Jena’s coping mechanisms is to use sex with almost-strangers to make her feel alive or to give her a sense of being grown up. When she meets Mark, a much older man, she becomes consumed by him, to the point that it begins to affect her friendships and her working life, including a potential opportunity to go to New York to join one of the world’s leading orchestras.

Brave and audacious tale

It’s a brave and audacious tale, told in a refreshingly frank voice. I wasn’t sure it would be a story for me. I seem to have read a LOT of novels about millennial young women lately and I didn’t think this would anything new to the mix. But I was wrong.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing turned out to be a gripping, occasionally shocking read (there’s a lot of sex in it, you have been warned), but its real strength lies in its perspective of an Asian-Australian trying to succeed in a closeted world dominated by the white and the privileged.

I really loved its originality, its fierceness and its unflinching attitude. I reckon this one might just appear on my Books of the Year list for 2020 I enjoyed it so much.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan: Another story of a millennial woman trying to reinvent herself, who hooks up with an older man before realising her heart desires other things.

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani: A confronting and deeply thought-provoking tale about a married woman who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places.

This is my 5th book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 21st book for #AWW2020.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor

The-thrill-of-it-all

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If anything is ripe for satire it is rock journalism and rock biographies. They’re so filled with clichés and stereotypes, how could you not want to send them up?

Film-makers have already done so with the 1984 cult classic “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap, which satirises the so-called wild antics of a fictionalised heavy metal band, and the more recent BBC4 TV series, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock, which lampoons Peter Gabriel’s career (with Peter Gabriel’s endorsement).

Now Irish writer Joseph O’Connor has entered the fray with his latest novel, The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.

My name is Robbie Goulding. I was once a musician. For five years in the 1980s I played guitar with the Ships. This memoir has been long in the making.

Now this is where I offer a caveat. I’m a huge music fan. I spent my teenage years and all of my twenties amassing the greatest collection of rock cassettes (remember them?) and CDs known to man, I went to countless gigs and had subscriptions to all the leading music magazines of the time, including Rolling Stone and Q. I viewed this as a kind of “male” hobby because none of my female friends were really into music — certainly not to the same extent I was. I would pour over sleeve notes and CD covers, learning all the connections between producers and session musicians, and explore new genres and discover new bands in much the same way I now do with books.

But when I read novels about music they never quite work for me. I think that’s because music is so special and ephemeral and subjective, how can you possibly translate that into the written word? How can you capture the way it makes you feel? And it probably doesn’t help that over the years I’ve read way too many non-fiction books about musicians and bands (here’s just a handful reviewed on this site), so it always feels a bit superfluous: why invent something when you could just read the real thing?

So, with that in mind, I picked up this book not really expecting to get along with it. But I needn’t have worried. O’Connor, who is a music fan himself (I actually saw him play guitar and sing at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre when he did a special gig with lots of Irish musicians called The Music of Ghost Light in 2011), doesn’t try to write so much about the music but the people who make it. He covers all the clichés — the lousy gigs with just two people in the audience, the struggle to get a record deal, the infighting, the sex, the drugs and so on — but he does it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek but without ever turning it into farce or mockery. It actually feels like a book with a heart: you care about the people in it.

Life as a rock star

The Thrill of it All spans 25 years and tells the story of Irish-born teenager Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and subsequent slide into obscurity. It’s largely set in Luton, England, a light industrial town 30 miles north of London, where he forms a band with Vietnamese-born Francis Mulvey, a Marc Bolan-type figure, who is charismatic and troubled but has a great singing voice.

When I first encountered Francis, in college in the eighties, he would pitch up for lectures sporting more lip frost and blusher than Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. Apart from on television, he was the first male I ever saw in eye shadow, a weird shade of magenta he sourced by trawling theatrical-supply shops. ‘They use it for murderers and whores,’ he’d explain, with the insouciance of one on terms with both.

Joining them is cellist (and love interest) Sarah-Thérèse Sherlock and her twin brother Sean on drums.

When the book opens we know that Robbie and Fran have had a falling out and that Fran is elusive but still famous in a kind of David Bowie-type of way — there are countless “unauthorised biographies, a feature-length documentary, profiles and fanzines and blog sites and newsgroups” about him. But we don’t really know how they got to this point: that is all slowly revealed over the course of the narrative which is made up of Robbie’s own thoughts, interviews — conducted on radio and TV chat shows in the past and by Robbie’s daughter (and editor) Mollie Goulding specifically for the memoir — lyrics and diaries.

It charts the Ship’s steady rise in the UK and then its big success in America, where the band is courted by the rich and famous and where they make so much money they don’t know what to do with it. The excesses reveal themselves in typically predictable ways — um, drugs, anybody? — and before long it all goes to hell in a hand basket.

But even though O’Connor is deliberately working with stereotypes, his characters are richly drawn and always believable. They have hearts and souls, worries and troubles, dreams and ambitions. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that you could take any successful band from the 1980s and simply change the names, and this story would more or less match the one in this novel, that’s how realistic and spot-on it feels.

The narrative, which fast-forwards and rewinds (see what I did there) over time, is filled with vivid detail — of the era, of the music, the fashions and the politics of the day. It’s also peppered with great one-liners and playful, comic scenes that had me tittering in joyful recognition. It’s never cheesy, but often honest and raw.

I’ve seen some reviews bill The Thrill of it All as being a book for anyone who’s dreamt of being a rock star, but I’d say it’s appeal is far wider than that: it’s for anyone who loves music — blues, ska, New Wave, punk and rock especially.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ian McEwan, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan

amsterdam

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 198 pages; 1998.

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam could easily have been included in my recent 10 books about journalists post. That’s because the lead character is a newspaper editor, who tries to revive a flagging career and a dive in circulation figures by publishing a series of photographs that could bring down a politician.

The novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1998, is a searing tongue-in-cheek account of journalistic ethics before the internet took over. But it’s also a terrific comedy about middle-aged men who will do almost anything to kick-start, or cling onto, stalled careers.

Though the humour is subtle, I tittered my way through it. Occasionally it’s what the characters say that elicits a chuckle, but mostly it’s the clever connections and set-ups that McEwan puts into play that deliver the laughs. It’s like a game of chess — nothing is immediately obvious, but then a character makes a move and you see what he’s up to or how it might play out before it actually does, which makes it such a fun read.

A trio of men

The story revolves around three men — the aforementioned newspaper editor, a composer and an MP — who are linked by one thing: they are ex-lovers of Molly, a photographer dead at the age of 46 from an unspecified illness. The trio are friends or enemies, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

It’s a rather complicated plot, but I’ll try to summarise it as best I can without giving anything away. Essentially, it goes something like this: Vernon Halliday, editor of The Judge, an upmarket newspaper, is handed a story that could rescue the paper’s dying circulation figures. Molly apparently took a series of photographs of a leading politician, the foreign secretary Julian Garmony, striking poses as a cross-dresser. The photos were found by composer Clive Linley.

Vernon wants to publish them, not only to boost the paper’s circulation but also to scupper Garmony’s chances of ever being elected as prime minister. Clive doesn’t approve: he thinks publishing them would betray Molly. Yet when Vernon ignores the composer’s concerns, he finds the outcome isn’t quite what he expected…

Dual storyline

There’s a second story line involving Clive, who is also struggling with his career. He’s having a hard time composing a new symphony for the new millennium — he’s missed two deadlines already — so he takes himself on a week’s holiday to the Lake District hoping to blow off the cobwebs, so to speak. While out walking he witnesses an argument between a man and a woman but at the very moment he should have interjected, he can hear a melody in his head that he doesn’t want to lose. He scuttles away to write it down before he forgets it, only to find out much later, upon his return to London, that the argument he witnessed was just the beginning of what turned out to be a rather brutal rape.

Vernon believes Clive has a moral obligation to tell the police what he saw. He refuses — again with unforeseen results.

I can’t say anything about the ending, which concludes in Amsterdam (hence the title) and brings both storylines together in a rather satisfying if completely bonkers and certainly not realistic way. I often find that with McEwan’s novels, though — his endings are strange and occasionally rushed, but I’m not sure whether this is typical of his style or just the handful of books I’ve read.

All up, Amsterdam is quite a fun read about a trio of pompous men in high-flying careers acting like they’re juveniles. It’s ingeniously plotted story with a suitably over-the-top ending that’s completely preposterous but which is not entirely out of keeping with the rest of the book. It’s a novel about journalism, politics and music, but it also explores betrayal, loyalty, ambition — and death.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Russia, Sean Michaels, Setting, Tin House Books

‘Us Conductors’ by Sean Michaels

Us-Conductors

Fiction – paperback; Tin House Books; 459 pages; 2014.

Sean Michaels’ debut novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalised account of the life of Russian engineer and physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993) — later known as Leon Theremin — who invented the electronic musical instrument that takes his name: the theremin*. After living in the US for many years, he was repatriated to Russia and imprisoned in a gulag, where he worked in a secret laboratory inventing devices for Soviet espionage.

A book featuring a scientist as the lead character may sound like a strange concept, but it works extraordinarily well, probably because Michaels gives Dr Theremin such a compelling voice — part arrogant, part naive, often bewildered and constantly lovelorn — and adds a few fictionalised elements to his character — he practices kung fu, for instance — which gives the story an almost surreal quality.

I’m going to be completely up front and stake my colours to the mast, or the flag to the pole, or whatever that saying is and confess that this is my favourite novel on this year’s Giller Prize shortlist. It’s the kind of book that takes you on an adventure and is told in such a refreshingly intimate way that I felt slightly bereft when I finished the book (about a month ago) because I did not want the journey to end. And ever since, I’ve been thinking about Lev/Leon and marvelling at his extraordinary life.

A confession at sea

The book opens with Leon onboard a ship “plunging from New York back to Russia” .

But the door to my cabin is locked. I do not have the key.  Just a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down in solitude, as the distance widens between us.

This story is essentially a love letter to a young American musician called Clara —”the finest theremin player the world will ever know” — who has spurned Leon’s advances and married someone else.

His tale is divided into two main sections: his life in the US, where he pursues the idea of mass producing the theremin so that every home has one; and his life back in Russia, sent to a gulag for the rest of his life for a reason that is never quite made clear. But the one constant in his life is his unrequited love for Clara, which thrums like a theremin throughout.

Admittedly, the first section, set in glitzy Manhattan during Prohibition, is far more exciting than the second, but each informs the other, because it allows us to experience both Leon’s (almost spectacular) success followed by his dramatic fall from grace. Once courted by the rich and famous, showcasing his invention in Carnegie Hall and performing with the New York Philharmonic orchestra, and hanging out with the likes of Einstein, his life takes an unexpected twist when: (1) he finds out he hasn’t paid his taxes in six years and is going to become bankrupt; and (2) he’s coerced into becoming a Soviet spy, informing on people and institutions he appears to know little about.

A compelling voice

What makes this story so interesting is something I mentioned earlier: Leon’s voice.

It’s not that his voice is unreliable, but when he becomes a spy it’s hard to determine to what extent this is deliberate or accidental — we can never be 100 per cent certain that he is telling us everything he knows. Is he being economical with the truth, is he merely naive or has he become caught up in events his scientifically minded brain can’t comprehend?

At times he seems alarmingly trusting  — for instance, he leaves all his business decisions to a man he knows little about and then seems unfazed when he’s barely got a dime to rub together. But just when you have Leon pegged as being a passive character, he does something completely left of field (I can’t reveal it here, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler) and you realise you should never under-estimate him.

This is what makes Us Conductors such an intriguing read. But it’s also an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.

UPDATE — SUNDAY 9 NOVEMBER 2014 : The Shadow Giller Prize jury has chosen Us Conductors as our winner. You can find out more via the official announcement on KevinfromCanada’s blog.

Giller_Winner

UPDATE — TUESDAY 11 NOVEMBER 2014: The REAL Giller Prize has also chosen Us Conductors as its winner! How wonderful! You can find out more via the official announcement on the Giller Prize website.

* You can see a clip of  Leon Theremin playing the theremin on YouTube. Brits of a certain age may be more familiar with musician John Otway playing the instrument.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Frances Itani, Harper Collins, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Tell’ by Frances Itani

Tell

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.

The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer, and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community.  Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which  “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on  just a single story.

Small-town life

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The  second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

Family connections

While these two storylines are distinct, they are not separate. Itani fleshes out the relationships and links between the two couples to create a sense of family and shared history, almost as if they represent a microcosm of the village itself.

Not much happens plot wise except to move towards the choir’s annual New Year’s Eve concert, although even that is not the real climax of the novel, which ends with a revelation about a secret long-held by Am and Maggie. But the novel works in terms of the well-drawn characters, for it is their quiet conversations, their actions, the roles they play in village life and their interactions with each other that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the pages.

Sometimes, however, I felt the music element of the novel — the choir’s rehearsals and the performance itself — were slightly overworked, although I did enjoy the way in which Maggie’s rediscovery of her love for music helped her reconnect with emotions she had buried long ago. Her chance encounter with opera singer Dame Nellie Melba in Toronto before the war is beautifully drawn, if not quite believable.

I also struggled with the revelations at the end. While heartbreaking, they bordered on a sentimentality that seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. But these are minor quibbles.

Tell is a lovely, quietly devastating book that focuses on small moments but never loses sight of the bigger picture: that we must all take responsibility for our actions; that life, despite its many challenges, heartaches and sorrows, is what we make of it; and that failing to deal with the past can sometimes come back to haunt us in unforeseen and tragic ways.

I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in Canada but will be published in the UK on 6 January, 2015.

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

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle

The-Guts

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 (www.kelticpunk.com), 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.
—Brilliant.
They took the left and watched themselves taking it.
—Coolio.
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, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, France, Germany, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood-Blues

Fiction – Kindle edition; Serpent’s Tail; 256 pages; 2011.

A book about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War isn’t something that would normally pique my interest. But this book has been nominated for every award going this year — the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — so I figured there must be something special about it. I was right.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the voice of its narrator, Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s. To give you a feel for how he talks, here’s how he describes the jazz band to which he once belonged:

Once upon a time we was the stuff. Played the greatest clubs of Europe, our five recordings as famous as anything. We had fans across the continent, played Austria and Switzerland and Sweden and Hungary and even Poland. Only reason we ain’t never gigged in France was cause Ernst, a proud son of a bitch, he held a war-based grudge. Lost it soon enough, when old Germany started falling apart. But before that our band was downright gold, all six of us: Hieronymus Falk on trumpet; Ernst ‘the Mouth’ von Haselberg on clarinet; Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax; Paul Butterstein on piano; and, finally, us, the rhythm boys – Chip Jones on drums and yours truly thumbing the upright. We was a kind of family, as messed-up and dysfunctional as any you could want.

When the story opens Sid is an old man. It’s 1992 and his fellow band member, Chip, is accompanying him to the German premiere of a film about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero, the youngest member of their band, was largely regarded as a musical protégé, but he died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The documentary explores events leading up to his arrest by the Nazis. It also accuses Sid of a great betrayal, something which takes him somewhat by surprise.

But all is not as it seems. Like the legend of Elvis, there are rumours that Hiero is still alive.

‘What really happened to Hieronymus Falk’ become something of a journalist sport. All sorts of nonsense started up.

When Chip reveals that he’s received recent correspondence from Hiero, he and Sid go on a heart-wrenching adventure to find him. During their trip — by bus through a rather grim pre-European Union Poland — Sid slowly comes to accept that his past has finally caught up with him but is struggling to know how to deal with it.

The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later — but events are always seen from Sid’s point of view. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies (especially of Hiero), his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back.

These temporal shifts allow us to see the ways in which Sid has grown and changed as a character. The young Sid is plagued by self-doubt and envy; the older Sid is comfortable in his skin until his conscience and regret get the better of him.

While the book is littered with jazz references, I tended not to view this as a “jazz novel” — I’m not knowledgeable enough to cast comment on its authenticity or otherwise — but I did enjoy the way Edugyan brings the music to life through her prose.

Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and [Louis] Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.

But for me, the heart of this novel is the way in which Edugyan shines a spotlight on a subject not much explored in modern fiction — that of black people living in Aryan Germany. Here’s how one character explains it:

‘Life for black people under the Third Reich,’ he said through his nose, ‘was extremely contradictory. This is because there were so many different types of black people, and their treatment depended on what group they belonged to. For instance, you had the children of the African diplomats who’d come to the country during its colonial period. You had African–American performers, the opera singer Marian Anderson and jazzmen like Charles Jones and Sidney Griffiths, who, like their counterparts in Paris – Josephine Baker, Arthur Briggs, Bill Coleman and the like – all came to Europe to get away from the overwhelming racism prevalent in the southern United States in that era. The Jim Crow laws, in effect from the late 1800s right into the 1950s, barred blacks from active participation in society. In the twenties Europe was still a place black entertainers could come to earn a good living. Especially in Germany, whose borders were kept open to foreigners due to the Versailles Treaty. Also, the loss of the First World War had brought about a whole new artistic movement. The market for jazz had grown tremendously, and there was a decent following.’

While Half Blood Blues is not a perfect novel, I can’t help but respect Edugyan’s accomplishment. She’s attempted a risky endeavour by giving herself some high aims. Not only does she write the entire book in a Creolized voice, she focuses on jazz musicians against the backdrop of the Third Reich. She then fleshes out a very strong cast of characters, throws in a page-turning plot — Is Hiero alive or not? Did Sid really betray him? — and uses a complex structure to tell her story.

Half Blood Blues has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — and I’d like to think she might just win it. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro, Publisher, Setting, short stories, USA, Venice

‘Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2009.

The only Kazuo Ishiguro book I have read is Never Let Me Go, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005. While I found it a slightly frustrating experience, I was intrigued enough to add a few more of his books to my TBR, where they have steadfastly remained for about five years. When Ishiguro’s latest book, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, was chosen by my book group, I was delighted to have the opportunity to finally read more of his work.

As the name suggests, the book is a collection of short stories, each of which is themed around music and/or nightfall. The choice of the word nocturne is a clever one, given that it means a musical composition that is “appropriate to the night or evening”. Its other meaning — “an instrumental composition of a dreamy or pensive character” — would also be a good description of Ishiguro’s prose style, which is languid and dream-like throughout.

All five stories are lovely, entertaining reads, punctuated with great wit, and all are told by male protagonists not quite at home in the world or their own skin.

In Crooner, which is set in Venice, Janeck, from an unspecified Communist country, meets a childhood hero — an old American crooner, Tony Gardner. Janeck is a musician who plays guitar as part of an orchestra that performs for tourists in Piazza San Marco. He spots Tony in the crowd and introduces himself, and before he knows it he gets to meet Tony’s good-looking wife, Lindy, who appears brash and argumentative. From the outside it would seem their marriage is on the rocks, so when Tony enlists Janek to help him perform a moonlight serenade it seems like the right thing to do… but all is not as it seems.

In Come Rain or Come Shine, the narrator, 47-year-old Raymond, lives in Spain and is a bit of a drifter. He is invited to spend the weekend with his London-based friends, Emily and Charlie, with whom he went to university (Emily and Ray share a love of American show tunes). But this is not your average weekend away, because when he arrives, Charlie announces that his marriage to Emily is floundering and he wants Raymond to patch it up while Charlie goes to Frankfurt “on business”. The story is pretty much a farce, in which Raymond, out of his depth, tries to cover up the fact he stole a peek at Emily’s diary while she was at work. It is by far the funniest story in the collection.

In Malvern Hills, a young, struggling musician decamps to his sister’s house in the Malvern Hills for the summer. He hopes to spend some down time, working on his music, but finds himself having to help his sister, Maggie, and her husband, Geoff, run their busy cafe. Even though he’s not paying board or contributing to the household bills, he resents having to help Maggie in this way — and there are some hilarious moments when she politely calls him to task, but he never seems to get it. When he meets a middle-aged Austrian couple on holiday in the area, he befriends them — and is intrigued by the ways in which they present one face to the outer world and a different one to each other.

In Nocturnes, probably my favourite of the collection, a failed jazz musician, Bill, tries to revive his career by undergoing (illegal) plastic surgery. While recovering in the penthouse of a swanky hotel, he finds that his neighbour is Lindy Gardner, the ex-wife of crooner Tony Gardner (whom we met in the first story). Lindy is also recovering from surgery, but bored with lying in her room, she prowls the hotel at night, stealing food from the kitchen, and when she convinces Bill to join her one evening you know trouble is brewing…

In Cellists, the weakest story in the collection, a young Hungarian cellist, Tibor, accidentally finds himself a mentor and patron in the form of a mysterious older woman, whom watches him perform in a Venetian square. She introduces herself as Eloise McCormack, an American cellist, whom Tibor assumes is a distinguished musician. She criticises his performance, but wants to put him “on the correct path”, so offers to tutor him. He reluctantly accepts, but Miss McCormack isn’t all she’s cracked up to be…

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is not a particularly memorable read, probably because the “voice” in each story is too similar and there’s little to distinguish one character from the other. There are too many lone male musicians, older American woman and unhappy couples in it for a start. And theming the book around night and music seems like a marketing pitch that doesn’t quite come off.

But as a whole, it is a gentle, effortless read — I consumed the book in one sitting — and a perfectly pleasant way to while away a few hours.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, Venice, Vikram Seth

‘An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth

AnEqualMusic

Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 496 pages; 2004.

An Equal Music is one of those big, beautiful books best appreciated by kicking off your shoes and curling up on the sofa to devour it in one or two longish sittings. It’s even better if it’s accompanied by a steady supply of coffee and cake, while the rain outside patters on the window. That’s not exactly how I read this book, but I could easily imagine doing so, because the story is so captivating and pleasurable.

Essentially it is an epic romance, set in London (and Venice), involving classical musicians. Now this is where I put up my hands and reveal I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to classical music, so some of the terminology and musical references were completely lost on me. But it certainly did not detract from the story, nor the all-encompassing, occasionally claustrophobic world presented here. I am sure anyone with a love of classical music would absolutely adore this novel.

The story, divided into eight parts, is told through the eyes of Michael, a 30-something violinist, who is the member of a quartet. He makes a little money on the side by teaching music, and has recently fallen into a relationship with one of his students. But it’s clear that Michael is nursing a great hurt. Ten years ago he left the woman he now realises was “the one” and has no idea what happened to her. Then, one day, while on a double-decker bus stuck in Oxford Street traffic, he finds himself eye to eye with his long lost love, Julia, who is sitting in the bus opposite.

It’s difficult to say much more without revealing crucial elements of the plot, so if this all sounds a bit vague, I’m sorry. What I can say is that Michael and Julia do, eventually, get back together, but the course of true love never runs smoothly, and there’s a lot of heartbreak and pain with which to contend — for both characters.

It’s pretty hard to fault the characterisation in this novel, although I have to admit that Michael, did, at times, feel slightly creepy and obsessive to me and there were occasions when I wondered how much of his narrative I could trust. Similarly, Julia’s motivations are often puzzling, and because we are never told her side of the story, there’s no way of knowing why she behaves the way that she does.

The secondary characters, of which there are quite a few, including Michael’s musical partners, the quartet’s agent, his neighbours and his father, all feel like living, breathing people. And the insights into life as a classical musician — rehearsing, negotiating a record deal, touring in Europe and performing on stage — are fascinating, especially the tensions and rivalries between quartet members.

But it’s the setting, too, which really sold this novel to me. How could I not like a book set in an area of London I know fairly well? Hyde Park in winter has never felt more atmospheric to me than Vikram Seth’s evocative descriptions of it. And the parts set in Venice had me itching to revist the watery city I love so much.

An Equal Music was first published in 1999. It’s a hugely passionate novel about passion — passion for others, passion for music, but, most of all, passion for life.

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

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

ThirteenTonne

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.