Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, Frédéric Dard, Publisher, Pushkin Vertigo, Setting

‘Bird in a Cage’ by Frédéric Dard

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Vertigo; 128 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by David Bellos.

Crime novellas don’t get more slick and out-and-out gripping than Frédéric Dard’s Bird in a Cage. 

First published in 1961, this cleverly plotted tale has recently been reissued in English translation by Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint, which has two more of Dard’s novellas — The Wicked Go to Hell and Crush — on its list and a third one, The Executioner Weeps, on the way.

Apparently he was quite the prolific writer, having penned hundreds of thrillers, suspense stories, plays and screenplays during his career, before his death in 2000.

Dark and twisty turns

Bird in a Cage is one of those brilliant crime books that is full of so many dark and twisty turns and unexpected revelations that you begin to question your own sanity. The further I got drawn into this thrilling tale, the more my questioning mind went into overdrive. Did I miss a clue? Where *is* this story going? What’s going to happen next? Who do I trust here? This isn’t going to end well, is it? Someone’s going to slip up here, aren’t they? And so on, and so forth.

The story revolves around a 30-year-old man returning to his childhood home in Paris after a long absence. It’s Christmas Eve, a time when everyone is supposed to be enjoying themselves with family and friends, but Albert’s mother has died and he feels her loss keenly.

To distract himself, he heads out to a local brasserie for a quiet meal, and while there he catches the eye of a beautiful young woman eating out with her daughter. An unspoken connection is made and he follows her home — more by accident than design.

The woman is aware she’s being followed and issues an unexpected invitation: would he like to come up to her apartment for a Christmas drink?

Albert’s decision, of course, is a fatalistic one — but not in the way you might expect.

Who to trust?

The curious mystery that unfolds has Albert wondering if he might, in fact, be delusional, which is exactly the same kind of “trick” the author plays on his readers. For with each turn of the page you find yourself wondering what *exactly* is going on. Can you trust the narrator? Can you trust the beautiful woman? Why does she have two drops of blood on her sleeve? And why is she so keen to befriend a man when she’s a married woman?

Of course, I’m not going to spoil the plot here, but let’s just say I was kept guessing throughout and I would never in a million Sundays have solved the crime in question. The ending, when it comes, is genius.

There’s a dark, brooding atmosphere to the story, which makes it thrilling to read. And the prose, eloquent and stripped back to the bare minimum, ensures minimal effort is required…yet it is not without important detail and it is those little details — two lonely people adrift in a Parisian Christmas — that give this book its special appeal.

But above all, A Bird in a Cage is a masterpiece of plotting and of narrative pacing and is so packed with suspense it’s a wonder the pages don’t explode out of their binding as soon as you open the book. This is definitely a must-read for those who like their crime on the tense and intelligent side. This was my first Frédéric Dard; it won’t be my last.

Author, Book review, CS Richardson, Doubleday Canada, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Emperor of Paris’ by CS Richardson


Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 279 pages; 2012.

I love Paris, I love cooking and I love reading. No surprise, then, that a novel about a Parisian-based book-collecting baker would have some appeal. But CS Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris, which has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, was a bit like a cake that fails to rise: flat and disappointing. And forgive me for spinning out the baking analogy even further, but the ingredients in this novel just didn’t work — for this reader at least — despite being packed with flavour.

Fable-like tale

Spanning a 50-year period between the turn of the 19th century and the Second World War, and covering everything from war to fine art, book-selling and story-telling, the tale largely revolves around the impossibly thin and illiterate baker Emile Notre-Dame; his rotund and religious Italian wife, Immacolata; and their son, Octavio.

In prose that it is wistful and fable-like, Richardson tells the family’s history running the popular BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME (“the N having long since vanished”) in a narrow flatiron building  (known as the “cake-slice”) in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

In the untitled prologue, we discover that the bakery has burned down and that, somewhat unusually, it contained a vast collection of books —  there are “shards of red leathers and frayed blue cloths, the curled and blackened edges of marble papers” floating in the air. We are left with that picture in our mind’s eye, but must read almost an entire novel — interspersed with “callbacks” as reminders of the fire — to find out how the bakery came to be transformed into one man’s personal library.

Visual quality

There’s no doubt that Richardson, who is also an award-winning book designer, has a vivid imagination. He paints beautiful and evocative pictures, a bit like scenes from a film, on almost every page. This is a  good example:

Near the Métro the young woman pauses for a moment to watch as a man, perhaps her own age, appears from nowhere and greets a lady friend. He hesitates, then leans in to kiss her cheeks. She seems unsure in a pair of new shoes; she nervously fingers her hair. The man’s face gleams with sweat. Tugging at the short legs of his trousers, he offers her a bouquet of drooping flowers. She smiles as she accepts them. The young woman looks away and walks on.

But, for me, this type of writing wears thin, probably because it is comprised purely of functional descriptions — all tell and not much show. It also makes it near on impossible to identify with any of the characters, who seem as interesting as cardboard cutouts (no matter how beautifully described they might be), because you just can’t get inside their heads.  (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is written in a similar style — chances are, if you liked that book, you’ll like Richardson’s as well.)

And the narrative thread — which is essentially a series of vignettes based on love between people and love of food, literature, art and storytelling — lacked sustained momentum.

Maybe because I came to this book on the back of three brilliant five-star novels — two of which are yet to be reviewed — this one really didn’t work for me. However, if you enjoy faux-naïf tales then it’s likely that The Emperor of Paris will appeal.

Finally, people who appreciate books as objects in themselves will love this hardcover edition: underneath the matt embossed dustjacket lies gorgeous endpapers and handsome red-leather binding. The book pages also have deckled edges, something you rarely see in hardcover books produced in the UK.

Author, Book review, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, France, Germany, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan


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.

Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Marion Halligan, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘Valley of Grace’ by Marion Halligan


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 248 pages; 2009.

Valley of Grace, the latest novel by Australian author Marion Halligan,  is one of the most exquisitely designed  books I’ve had the pleasure of reading — and holding — in a long, long time. It’s slightly wider than your normal literary novel (15.2cm, as opposed to the more regular 12.8cm), has fold-in covers and is typeset in a beautiful font, PastonchiMT.

The cover image of a Parisian streetscape, complemented by a gold border, is from Getty Images and the cover design is by Sandy Cull. It recently won the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book at the 58th Annual Book Design Awards announced in Sydney. A well deserved award, in my humble opinion, because for me, the look and feel of this book only enhanced my reading experience of it. I can’t help but think that with the advance of digital books, this kind of experience — taking joy in the beauty of an object — will be lost forever.

But does that all matter, when it’s the content upon which we should judge a book? Fortunately, Valley of Grace delivers on the inside as much as it delivers on the outside. Indeed, it’s a gorgeous story, written in the most exquisite (am I using that word too much?) prose that makes for an entirely effortless read.

The book is marketed as a novel, but like many books I’ve been reading lately, it’s actually a series of interwoven short stories featuring characters that knock and rub against one another throughout the narrative. The framework which ties them all together is modern day Paris, which comes alive in Halligan’s pitch-perfect descriptions of buildings and streetscapes, little cafes and chocolate shops. (She also takes pains to describe food in such a way that if you’re not hungry when reading, you’ll be ravenous afterwards.)

But the real “theme” of this novel, if that is the right word to use, is babies: Halligan’s small cast of characters — all well-to-do, well-heeled Parisians — either hankers after them, cannot have them or does not know what to do with them. There is Fanny Picart, who works in an Antiquarian bookshop (the descriptions of the shop and the books are gorgeous), who marries the man of her dreams but fails to fall pregnant; there is Sabine, who turns a blind eye to her academic husband’s affairs, but is then expected to arrange the termination of any resulting unwanted pregnancies; and there is Luc, the owner of the bookshop, who is in a committed gay relationship but is asked to father a child for a pair of lesbian friends.

Each of these characters has battles of conscience to overcome, as they reconcile their reality with their dreams. For instance, when Fanny, who is so desperate to become a mother, finally realises her ambition (and not in the way she quite planned), she has to come to terms with the fact that having a child does not necessarily result in happiness. And even Sabine, who initially comes across as slightly cold, aloof and foolish (why on earth is she assisting her husband’s libertarian lifestyle when it so clearly makes her unhappy?) has her views turned upside down, when she becomes a kind of secret, substitute mother for one of his “bastard” children.

On the surface, much of this book reads like a beautiful, modern-day fairy tale, but just like the best of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales there are hidden meanings and moral messages if you dig a little deeper. This is a lovely, gentle, easy-to-read book, rich with symbolism, and I thank Sue from Whispering Gums for bringing it to my attention. I urge you to read Sue’s review for another take on the same book.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Jean Rhys, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Quartet’ by Jean Rhys


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 144 pages; 2000.

It seems ironic or pre-determined (or something), because no sooner than I write a post about bleak books and ask you to submit your suggestions, than I pick up Jean Rhys‘ debut novel, Quartet. Ms Rhys doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly on bleakness, but boy, she does an exquisite line in melancholy and hopelessness.

This book, first published in 1928, brings bohemian Paris in the 1920s to life. It’s set in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, where people lived in hotels and passed their time in smoke-filled cafes and ate out every night because they simply didn’t have the facilities to cook at home. Women were generally seen and not heard, and relied on men to support them.

Living in this dark, seedy world is Marya, who left England four years earlier to marry a Pole called Stephan. Despite the fact Stephan, an art dealer, “disliked being questioned and, when closely pressed, he lied”, she feels safe and “strangely peaceful” when she is with him. But then he is imprisoned, and she’s left penniless and alone.

An older sophisticated couple, Mr and Mrs Heidler, come to her rescue, offering her the spare room in their apartment. Although the idea of living with them fills her with “extraordinary dismay”, she is left with little choice and moves in.

It works out well in the beginning, but Marya, a deep thinker, soon finds herself being manipulated and it all goes down hill from there.

I can’t say much more than that, because I don’t want to ruin the story for those yet to read it. But it’s melancholy and rather glum and poor Marya seems unable to get herself out of the hole she’s created. She comes across as being rather young and naive, but also slightly weak, as if she feels that because she is trapped there’s no use fighting and that it would be simply easier to succumb to other’s desires and needs. Even when her husband is finally released from jail, she seems unable to stand up to his devious ways and just lets him get on with it.

This is a beautifully written book, and I love that Rhys doesn’t explain everything, so it’s up to you, the reader, to fill in the gaps. It’s only 145 pages long, but I did have to re-read certain sections because I felt that I’d missed a subtlety that was crucial to the plot. I think there’s so much going on here, between characters, even within certain character’s heads, that it’s the type of book that would benefit from two or more readings and you’d come away from it with a whole new perspective and appreciation of Rhys’ talent. (Remember this is her first novel.)

Quartet is incredibly evocative of another time and place, and as I read it I kept thinking it would make a wonderful film. So I was delighted to discover that Merchant Ivory have beaten me to it. It was made into a movie in 1981 and that it can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.

Author, Book review, Catherine Sanderson, France, memoir, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Petite Anglaise’ by Catherine Sanderson


Fiction – hardcover; Penguin; 340 pages; 2008.

Petite Anglaise is one of those books that first started life as a blog — the refreshingly well written and entertaining Petite Anglaise — except this is not a collection of posts strung together to form a disjointed narrative. Instead it’s a proper memoir that charts Catherine Sanderson’s life in Paris as an expat Brit.

Despite its (not particularly attractive) chick-lit cover, the story deals with some fairly weighty subject matter, not the least Catherine’s decision to leave her long-term partner (dubbed Mr Frog) and the father of her child (dubbed Tadpole), because she’d embarked on an affair with someone who left comments on her blog! Saucy, no?

But the book also charts a love affair with Paris, a city that Catherine became obsessed about when she was an 11-year-old school girl in Yorkshire.

France. Here was a destination to bend my running steps towards; a hook to hang my daydreams on; so alluring, so exotic, so tantalizingly close. No matter that school French lessons consisted of little more than endlessly rehearsed role plays and verb conjugations. No matter that my first extended stay on French soil would not take place for another six agonizing years. As I sat in a numbered booth in the school language lab, cumbersome headphones blocking out the English sounds of the world around me, I closed my eyes and pretended I was actually there. I yearned to taste the 200 grams of pâté I was instructed to buy in the grocer’s shop; to visit the church or the town hall after quizzing a passer-by — invariably an elderly man wearing a beret — for directions. ‘Ecoutez, puis répétz!’ said the voice on the crackling tape at the start of every exercise. ‘Listen, then dream’ would have been more apt. I’d fallen hopelessly, irrationally, in love with the French language and, by extension, with France. And I’m at a loss to explain why, even now.

After a stint as an exchange student and later as an English assistante at a lycee in Normandy — where she acquires her first French boyfriend — it seems Catherine’s path is set. A teaching job at the Sorbonne Nouvelle follows and before long Catherine is living in the City of Light, where she meets Mr Frog and settles down with him. But seven years later, with a one-year-old child, the dream is fading: Mr Frog works long hours and Catherine, a secretary for an English company, is bored at work and stressed at home.

She starts a blog — “a harmless hobby…my virtual playground” — to capture some “arch observations about life in Paris”. But when her posts become more personal — confessing that her partner does not want to marry her, for instance — her online popularity grows substantially and she gains a worldwide audience.

Little did I know I had just unleashed a force which, within less than a year, would turn my life, and the lives of those dearest to me, inside out.

As much as I enjoyed this book — I raced through it in the space of a cold, wet weekend, unable to tear my eyes away from it — I have to admit that I’m in two minds about the author. I’m not sure if she’s so shallow that she’ll resort to almost anything for publicity (anonymous or not), or if she is someone to admire because she was focused and determined enough to chase a dream. But what I do know is  this: she is a superb writer. Her effortless prose style is by turns witty and heartbreakingly sad. She’s painfully honest throughout, baring herself open in such a way that you feel voyeuristic reading her thoughts. The narrative trots along at a fair old pace and there’s enough “hooks” to keep you reading on to see what might happen next.

Interestingly enough, after Catherine finished this book and before it was published, she was fired by the accountancy firm where she worked for blogging about life in the office. She went on to win her case, and has now embarked on a writing career. Her first novel is due for publication next year.

Author, Book review, Eoin McNamee, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

’12:23 Paris. 31st August 1997′ by Eoin McNamee


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 235 pages; 2007.

The title of this intriguing book refers to the time and date of the fatal car accident in which Diana, Princess of Wales, her lover Dodi Al Fayed and their driver Henri Paul were killed. It was an event that stunned the world. Ask anyone where they were when they heard the news and they’ll be able to tell you — usually in great detail.

Almost ten years on, the events of that fateful night in the Pont d’Alma underpass in Paris continue to live on through several conspiracy theories, including one that claims Diana was killed as part of a British Secret Service plot to prevent her marrying an Arab. Such theories have not been eased by last year’s official Metropolitan Police report which found Diana’s death had been a “tragic accident” and not murder. An official inquest, scheduled for earlier this year but now postponed because the woman presiding over it, Lady Butler-Sloss, decided to step down, is equally unlikely to draw a line under Diana’s death. Even her two sons, Princes William and Harry, have recently admitted that they believe there will always be an endless fascination with what happened in the Alma tunnel on that night …

… which is kind of where Irish writer Eoin McNamee steps into the picture. In this cool, calculating novel he fictionalises events leading up to, and including, the accident in Paris. He very cleverly blends fact with fiction and comes up with a totally believable if somewhat alarming story that, at times, had the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. At others, I wanted to reach for the tissues.

Despite the roller-coaster of emotions that this book delivers, this is not an easy read. It’s written in the cold, emotionally distant manner of a spy thriller, employing language that is clipped, dry and very sparse. (Diana is never referred to by her first name, but always by her last, which makes her sound like an object, and not a person, a difficult concept to get used to, for this reader at least.)

But McNamee has a way with words and is able, through just a handful of phrases, to evoke all manner of dark emotion.  He delivers a very nice line in fear and paranoia, and is even able to make an airport car-park seem menacing, as this quote reveals:

He drove into a multi-storey close to the terminal building. He found a space on the third floor. He was alone as he locked the car. It was very quiet and the locking mechanism made a loud noise. Sound travelled strangely in these buildings. Small noises were subject to unusual amplifications. A barrenness of the soul stalked the echoing prefabricated spaces. You felt as if you were in a cathedral of modernist faith. You had the feeling that acolytes of non-belief were scurrying unseen in the pillared gloom.

But this is not a book about Diana. Instead it offers a shadowy glimpse of the world of British espionage, alive with mutual distrust and corruption, so you’re never quite sure who is spying on who, and for what reason.

McNamee cleverly holds his cards close to his chest throughout and gives each of the shifty characters that drift in and out of the narrative a good reason to want Diana dead. But who has the most to gain? Is it Harper, the ex-policeman? Or his two old colleagues he brings in to help him carry out surveillance on Diana during her Paris trip? Maybe Henri Paul, the driver and former deputy director of security at The Ritz, is the one to blame? Or what about the paparazzo Andanson who finds himself in the grip of a mysterious cult called the Order of the Solar Temple?

The plot will keep you guessing the whole way, although the climax at the end is almost as murky as the real world with which it purports to cover. Perhaps the final word should go to the author who recently wrote the following about Diana’s death and the media’s endless fascination with it:

Are we supposed to see the late 20th century archetype of the road accident victim lying on the curbside or the conspiracy victim lost in the murk of political murder? If the narrative tells us about anything, it tells us a little about death. Like all good stories it is in some way about ourselves. If nothing else, its function is to set us poring over the details looking for traces of our own mortality, the graveyard wayposts.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Venero Armanno, Vintage

‘Candle Life’ by Venero Armanno


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 351  pages; 2006. Review copy courtesy of the author.

Venero Armanno’s Candle Life begins where it ends: with a man lying on “dusty French cobblestones” in a Parisian street coming out of what he feels to be a coma of sorts.

The man is an Australian writer. He is living in an arts commune, where he spends his days mourning his Japanese-Australian girlfriend, Yukiko, who died suddenly before their planned trip to France.

One day he gets harassed by a strange-looking black man with a misshapen head. His name is Sonny, he’s American, a beggar and he claims to have known many of the 20th century’s greatest writers before his unspecified fall from grace.

Our unnamed narrator is not quite sure what to make of Sonny — is he being duped, or is his story a legitimate one? — but the chance meeting acts as a kind of catalyst for all kinds of accidental occurrences, including sexual congress with a mute Russian woman, the death of his dead lover’s gay friend and a love affair with a French student. Throw in a rich, possibly corrupt, Russian art dealer and a second beggar with a dodgy past and you get an entire cast of weird characters that only serves to heighten the strangeness of the city’s dark underbelly in which the narrator finds himself.

While it’s difficult to describe Candle Life without giving all the best bits away, it can be summarised as a strangely beguiling book about one man’s journey of self-discovery — spiritually, sexually and creatively — in a foreign city far from home. Through the narrator’s recollections of his life in Australia juxtaposed with his life in Paris, his dislocation and alienation becomes very real to  the reader. And because he is grappling with grief, he has an air of vulnerability that makes him endearing even if you might not agree with all the decisions he makes. I know at times I wanted to shake him by the shoulders and say, what are you doing? are you crazy?

Armanno’s writing is very assured, at times almost dreamlike, lulling the reader into a kind of trance. I’ve not read any magic realism before, but I imagine that parts of the story fall into this genre, although I think it would be unfair to label the entire book as such, because much of it is incredibly lucid and down-to-earth and very, very accessible.

As much as I enjoyed the story, there seemed to be too many divergent tangents which didn’t always drive the narrative forward. I found the chapters towards the end to be the most interesting and intriguing — especially Sonny’s revelations about what happened to him in Turkey and then our narrator’s claustrophobic, page-turning experiences in the catacombs under the streets of Paris.

All in all, Candle Life is a richly symbolic and — as the blurb on the back describes it — “startling original” book about finding your way out of darkness and into the light. Unfortunately, it is not available outside of Australia and New Zealand, which is a great shame because it deserves a wider audience.