Author, Book review, Cathy Sweeney, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Modern Times’ by Cathy Sweeney #ReadingIrelandMonth22

Fiction – hardcover; Weidenfeld & Nicholson; 148 pages; 2020.

This is why I love browsing in the library so much; I would not have discovered Cathy Sweeney’s Modern Times otherwise.

First published in the Republic of Ireland by Stinging Fly Press and now reissued by W&N, it is a collection of short stories with an absurdist and often risqué slant.

The suggestive cover art — designed by Steve Marking / Orion — is perfectly appropriate, for the very first story, “Love Story”, opens like this:

There was once a woman who loved her husband’s cøck^ so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.

How’s that for an opening line?

Tales about taboo subjects

There are other stories that revolve around sex and love affairs and lust. Most are only a few pages long, but they are shocking, confronting and wickedly funny by turn.

In “The Birthday Present”, for instance, a woman buys her husband a sex doll called Tina for his 57th birthday and keeps it locked in the guest room for his personal entertainment. But when he dies unexpectedly, she has to keep “Tina” hidden from her adult children.

In “The Handyman” a divorcee wonders what it would be like to have sex with the handyman she invites into her semi-detached house to fix up a few things before putting it on the market, while in “A Theory of Forms” a teacher reminisces about the illicit sex she used to have with a teenage boy who had learning difficulties.

In “The Woman with too Many Mouths”, a man plans to end his affair with a woman who has two mouths — “She was, as I said, not my type” — while in “The Chair”, a married couple take it in turns to administer electric shocks as a substitute for sex:

When it is my turn to sit in the chair, I am almost relieved. In the days leading up to it I become irritable, angry, even on occasion experiencing violent ideations. Often, during this period, I think of leaving my husband, of breaking everything. But when the time comes to sit in the chair I do so without protestation. A sensation of release and expanse overtakes me, as though I am swimming effortlessly in a vast blue ocean, obeying laws of nature that are larger than me, larger than the universe.

A little bit bonkers

Not all the stories are framed around these taboo subjects. Some are truly bizarre and best described as OFF THE WALL, bonkers or just plain WIERD.

There’s a story about a palace that becomes sick evident by a “dark discolouration” spreading through the bricks at the top of its tower. Another story revolves around a manuscript that is found wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind a boiler in a house recently “vacated” by an old man. In another, a son returns from boarding school and is instructed to supervise his mother at a family celebration for fear she will get up to “her old antics, letting the whole family down”.

Out of the 21 stories in the collection, my favourite is “The Woman Whose Child Was A Very Old Man” in which an unmarried mother escaping a “dull provincial backwater” moves to a city bedsit and takes a job at a local shop. She can’t afford childcare, so while she is at work she puts her baby in the freezer and as soon as she gets home she thaws him out.

Well, human nature is human nature, and anything can become normal. Soon putting the baby in the freezer was part of the rhythm of life. There were no various side effects. The baby went into arrested development while frozen, but then caught up easily when thawed out. When the woman had a day off the baby sometimes outgrew a romper suit in an afternoon or learned to crawl in an hour.

Eventually, this pattern of freezing and growing gets out of whack, and the child grows — and ages — too quickly. And then the woman gets distracted by her new career as a writer and forgets her child in the freezer, only to return years later to find he’s become a very old man. Yes, I told you the stories were bonkers.

Wholly original

The blurb on my edition suggests that Sweeney’s stories are reminiscent of Lydia Davis, Daisy Johnson and Angela Carter, but having only read Carter’s The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault I don’t know how accurate that comparison is. They do bring to mind the genius that is Magnus Mills, perhaps because of the simple, fable-like prose in which they are written. Regardless, they are wholly original — and totally memorable.

Modern Times is a refreshing palate cleanser offering a quirky, inventive take on the short story. It is great fun to read! I hope Sweeney writes a novel next so she can give extended reign to that vivid imagination!

^ I’ve inserted a special character so my content isn’t deemed “unsafe” by search engines.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Robert Drewe, Setting, short stories

‘The Bodysurfers’ by Robert Drewe

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2009.

Robert Drewe was born in Melbourne in 1943, grew up in Western Australia and became an award-winning journalist on the east coast before he turned his hand to fiction. The Bodysurfers, first published in 1983, is a collection of loosely connected short stories and I loved it.

There are 12 in total, each around 10 pages long, and they are mainly set in the coastal suburbs of Perth and Sydney, though there’s also a story set on the Californian coast. The beach is a central theme (surprise, surprise) and there are lush, vivid descriptions of the sandhills, the surf and the dangers that lurk within.

Intrigued as I am by the ocean, I am not an enthusiastic surf swimmer. […] Surf and tides turn malign too suddenly, waves dump you, sandbanks crumble in the current, undertows can catch you unawares. […] It isn’t the waves or the undertow that worry me when I do, however — it’s sharks. I imagine they’re everywhere. In every kelp patch, in the lip of every breaker, I sense a shark. Every shadow and submerged rock becomes one; the thin plume of spay on the edge of my vision is scant warning of its final lunge.

And while the stories are varied in style and point-of-view (some are third-person, others are first-person, and one — Sweetlip — is written in the style of a confidential report), the ways in which men navigate changed circumstances is a central focus. In these tales, men lose jobs, lose wives, lose their sense of purpose or pride.

In one story a prisoner adjusts to life outside by ogling bare-breasted women at the beach, in another a man has an affair with a woman whom he suspects is cheating on him.

In Shark Logic a man stages his own disappearance following financial irregularities at the school at which he was the headmaster and begins living a low-key invisible life by the sea;  in The Last Explorer an elderly man lying in his hospital bed recalls his past achievements — specifically crossing the continent from east to west in a 10-year-old Model T-Ford in the 1920s — and cringes when the nursing staff ask if he’s “done a wee this morning”.

The Lang family chronicles

And threaded throughout these various tales are recurring characters from three generations of the same family. We meet the Langs in the opening story, The Manageress and the Mirage, when three children — Annie, David and Max — are taken to a beachside hotel for their first Christmas dinner after their mother’s death. Their father, Rex, is keen to maintain certain festive traditions, but what he doesn’t tell them is that he is having an affair with the hotel manageress, a dark-haired woman in her 30s, who pays them too much attention and actually joins them for dinner.

She announced to me, ‘You do look like your father, Max’. She remarked on Annie’s pretty hair and on the importance of David looking after his new watch. Sportively, she donned a blue paper crown and looked at us over the rim of her champagne glass. As the plum pudding was being served she left the table and returned with gifts for us wrapped in gold paper — fountain pens for David and me, a doll for Annie. Surprised, we looked at Dad for confirmation. He showed little surprise at the gifts, however, only polite gratitude, entoning several times, ‘Very, very kind of you’.

In later stories, we meet Max and David as adults, navigating their own marital problems and affairs, and in another — named Eighty Per Cent Humidity — it’s David’s son Paul who plays a starring role:

On Paul Lang’s worst day since being extruded from the employment market he makes several bad discoveries. In ascending order of disruption and confusion rather than chronologically they are flat battery in his old Toyota, the lump on his penis and the lesbian love poem in his girlfriend’s handbag.

This loose collection of stories offers an insightful glimpse into the lives, attitudes and obsessions of white middle-class heterosexual Australian men from the mid-20th century to the early 1980s. They’re occasionally witty, sometimes terrifying and often focused on jealousy, love, lust or death.

The Bodysurfers has been adapted for film, television, radio and the theatre. I have seen none of them.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR40, Viking, William Trevor

‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 224 pages; 2018.

Willam Trevor’s Last Stories are literally that: the last short stories he penned before his death in 2016. They were published posthumously as a handsomely bound collection by Viking last year, and have now been reissued as a paperback by Penguin.

As you may know, Trevor is one of my favourite authors and earlier this year I went through a bit of a phase reading his first three novels: The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965) and The Love Department (1966). But this is my first foray into his short fiction.

10 tales

There are 10 rather exquisite tales in this collection. Most focus on love — particularly love less ordinary — and are written with a deft eye for detail and a storyteller’s regard for the bittersweet and the unexpected.

There’s a watchfulness at work here, because Trevor is focused on the small happenings in people’s lives, but that is not to say these stories, nor the lives depicted within them, are small. Indeed, it’s often the accumulation of small happenings that leads to bigger things — domestic dramas, marriage break-ups, even death.

As ever when it comes to short story collections, I find it difficult to review them because I’m never quite sure what to focus on and what to leave out. Rather than give you a detailed account of every story, let me single out the one I found most memorable.

The paperback edition

It’s the second story, The Crippled Man, which represents William Trevor at his very best.

In roughly 24 pages he lays out a tale that feels quite run-of-the-mill, of a woman living in an isolated farmhouse with her crippled cousin, whom she cooks and cleans for. But by the time you reach the conclusion, you realise that this is no ordinary tale: it’s slightly creepy and malevolent and has a delightful little twist at the end. I immediately wanted to re-read it again to see what I had missed the first time around.

The story goes something like this. The woman, Martina, is having a long-term love affair with the local butcher. One day, when she’s out visiting him, her cousin hires two men — brothers — to paint the house. He thinks the men are Polish, but they’re actually Roma and have never done a job like this before. The immediate assumption the reader makes is that they are up to no good and that they will rip off the crippled man. This is what Martina thinks too. She is angry at her cousin for making this decision without her input.

The men, however, do a rather good job painting the house, but mid-way through the job they are puzzled by a bizarre change in Martina’s behaviour. She stops bringing them their tea at the agreed times of 11am and 3.30pm and often just leaves a tray on the doorstep for them to find. One day the younger brother spots her through the window “crouched over a dressing-table, her head on her arms as if she slept, or wept”.

Later they realise that they have not heard the voice of the crippled man — who has only paid them half the agreed price —  for quite some time and they’re fearful something has happened to him. They are also fearful that they will not be paid the rest of the money owing them when the job is complete.

The clincher at the end — which I won’t reveal here — is akin to a penny dropping in the well, but Trevor writes in such a deeply understated way it comes as quite a shock that such a calmly told tale could deliver such a deliciously dark blow.

If you’ve not read Trevor before and want to get a feel for his style, I’d recommend reading The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, which is in this collection but has also been published in The New Yorker (which is where I read it first). It showcases to perfection the way in which he tends to focus on people’s unexpectedly dark character quirks and highlights how we often fail to confront those who have wronged us because we can’t quite believe their bad behaviour.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 28th for #TBR40. I treated myself to the hardcover edition for my birthday last year, but that copy is still in London. A few weeks ago I bought it on Kindle — it was the 99p daily deal — so I could read it here in my new home in Fremantle. 

Alice Bishop, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text

‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum is the literary equivalent of a concept album. Instead of songs expressing a particular theme or idea, it features short stories and flash fiction focused on the aftermath of bushfire.

It is possibly the most quintessentially Australian book I’ve ever read. It hums with vernacular, cultural references — models of cars, brands of ice-cream, the names of TV shows — flora and fauna that are only found on this island continent.

And yet it deals with the universal theme of what happens to people and their communities in the wake of a natural disaster.

Inspired by fire

Taking the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 (in which 180 people lost their lives) as her inspiration, Bishop explores the tragedy from almost every conceivable angle: those that stayed and fought to save their homes, the nurses who looked after the injured, the firefighters who fought the blaze, the people who lost loved ones, those that survived but felt guilty because of it.

There are 47 stories divided into three sections (all named after the wind that wreaked so much havoc — Prevailing, Southerly and Northerly); most are a few pages long, several are just a few lines and read like exquisite poetry:

In the Ashes

People think it takes away everything, but the colours were unlike anything I’ve ever seen: greys stronger than railway steel, blue-black charcoals, and oranges like tangerines—baked rust by dashboard sun.

All are written with a forensic eye for detail, often focused on finding beauty in grief. There are recurring themes — the intensity of the flames which were so hot they melted metal, the wind shifts, the loss of livestock, the important role that emergency services and community organisations played, those that lost everything having to wear donated clothing that didn’t fit properly — that build a consistent picture of an emergency situation that quickly turned to tragedy.

In fact, the picture that builds is emotionally intense, so much so that I could only read A Constant Hum in small doses, say three or four stories at a time, for this is not a book to plow through, but one to savour, to cogitate on, to mull over.

In the Acknowledgements, Bishop reveals that her family lost a house in the East Kilmore fire on Black Saturday. “I can’t imagine how it would really feel to lose family / friends / a partner in that way—what it would still feel like, today,” she says. I think this beautifully rendered collection demonstrates that she can imagine that kind of loss and she can write about it with care, kindness and great authenticity.

If you liked this, you might also like

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper: a true-crime tale about the arsonist responsible for one of the most devastating fires on Black Saturday, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2019. Note it’s only available in the UK in eBook form, but you can buy the physical book direct from the Melbourne-based publisher Text.

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, Mary Costello, Publisher, Setting, short stories, TBR40

‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 176 pages; 2015.

Short story collections don’t come much better than Mary Costello’s The China Factory.

First published in 2012, then reprinted in 2015, this volume contains 12 stories, each of which is richly evocative and deeply moving.

There are recurring themes  — of longing, of missed opportunities, of loneliness and guilt — all told through the eyes of ordinary people, from a teenage girl about to embark on her first summer job to a teacher on the brink of retirement.

Relationships in crisis

It’s largely peopled by long-term married couples who have settled into their individual routines and grown apart. Through Costello’s perceptive eye she is able to reveal those small life-changing moments that alter forever a couple’s relationship.

For instance, in Things I See, Annie witnesses her husband, Don, having sex with her sister, Lucy, on the kitchen worktop, but decides to never mention it because she feels she has far too much to lose. Romy, in Room in Her Head, makes a similar decision when she discovers that her husband has a son he’s never told her about.

In Insomniac, Andrew and Ann rarely talk, and Andrew, the insomniac of the title, secretly leaves the house on the nights he cannot sleep to drive around town. When he confesses that he once spent the night with a female police officer, Ann regrets ever asking him, “Tell me what you think about. Tell me what you do here at night.”

There are other stories of infidelities, both physical and psychological. For instance, in The Astral Plane an unhappy wife, E, wants more from her marriage but doesn’t quite know what that “more” might entail. When she strikes up an email correspondence with a man in New York she falls in love with him despite never having met or heard his voice.

While in Sleeping with a Stranger, a happily married school inspector takes a shine to a young teacher but keeps the relationship wholly professional. But a decade or more later, when he spots her at a conference, he takes her back to his hotel room.

Coming of age tales

But least you think all the stories are about sexual encounters, they’re not. Costello does a nice line in coming-of-age stories too.

In the lead story, a 17-year-old girl takes a summer job at a china factory sponging clay cups and her world opens up into one of gossip and petty rivalries between her all-female co-workers. When she strikes up a platonic friendship with a lonely bachelor no one much likes and later gets a promotion for being so good at her menial job, her colleagues shun her for reasons she can’t quite fathom.

And in You Fill Up My Senses a young girl growing up on a sheep farm becomes distraught when she sees the male lambs being castrated for the first time, opening up her eyes to the harsher reality of farming life.

All in all, The China Factory is a powerful collection of haunting stories, showcasing Costello’s talent for capturing the darker side of life and looking at the myriad and profound emotions that love, and the loss of love, can unleash.

This is my 2nd book for Reading Ireland Month, which is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging. It is also my 11th book for #TBR40. I bought it when it was reprinted because I’d loved her novel, Academy Street, so much — it was my book of the year in 2014 — and wanted to read more by this exceptional writer.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, William Trevor

‘Nights at the Alexandra’ by William Trevor

Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 103 pages; 2015.

William Trevor’s Nights at the Alexandra is a bittersweet novella about love, longing and devotion.

Brimming with nostalgia, it is told through the eyes of Harry, a 58-year-old bachelor looking back on his teenage years in provincial Ireland during the “Emergency” (Second World War).

Through Harry’s reminiscences, we learn he comes from a “Protestant family of the servant class which had come up in the world” and he had been expected to work in his father’s timber yard as soon as he finished his schooling.

But when, as a 15-year-old, he met Frau Messinger, a young British woman married to a German man twice her age, Harry’s eyes were opened to an alternative future.

Love at first sight

This is how Harry describes his first meeting with the woman who was to have such a long-lasting impact on his life:

She was an extremely thin, tall woman, her jet-black hair piled high, her eyes blue, her full lips meticulously painted: I had never seen anyone as beautiful, nor heard a voice that made me so deliciously shiver. ‘You looked for a blemish on her hands, on the skin of her neck or her face,’ I wrote in a notebook I kept later in my life. ‘There wasn’t one. I could have closed my eyes and listened to that husky voice for ever.’

Their platonic friendship is formed when she stops Harry in the street one day and asks him to deliver a flat car battery to the garage for her. She then asks him to bring a new one to Cloverhill, the big stone house on the edge of the village, where she lives.

This one request turns into a regular “gig” running errands and delivering packages for Frau Messinger, who often invites Harry into the house for tea, cake and conversation.

The relationship is an intimate but chaste one. She tells him stories about her life and writes him long letters when he’s away at boarding school in England. When his school friends tease him about it, he’s embarrased by their taunts. (“Houriskey wanted to know if I ever got a look about her skirts. At Liscoe grammar school there was a lot of talk like that; all humour was soiled, double meanings were teased out of innocence.”)

It’s only when Harry’s mother discovers that “the woman at Cloverhill” has given him a tie pin that he is forbidden from seeing her, a decision that he later defies.

Taking a stand

Nights at the Alexandra is a book that is as much about being an outsider as it is about growing up and taking a stand against your parents, for the Messingers are refugees, friendless in small town Ireland because everyone assumes they are Jews, and Harry is a Protestant in a largely Catholic country, sent away to England to go to school and expected to work in the family business when he graduates.

When Herr Messinger decides to build his wife a cinema — The Alexandra of the title — he asks Harry to run it. As much as he does not want to work for his father, Harry is torn, because he’s not sure he wants to run a movie theatre either, but later, partly in defiance of his parents but mainly through his love for Frau Messinger, he jumps at the chance to do so.

The story drips with Trevor’s trademark flair for melancholy and missed opportunities, and his prose is typically elegant and elegiac. The book is just 60 pages long but it’s written so tautly, with nary a word wasted, that it feels so much more powerful and authentic than a book, say three or four times longer, might.

It’s the mood of the novella that makes it such a memorable, haunting read, one that lingers in the mind long after the final page has been finished. Poor heartbroken Harry and the kindly Messingers will stay with me for a long time.

Added extras

This edition of Nights at the Alexandra (first published in 1987) comes with two additional short stories — The Ballroom of Romance (first published in 1972) and The Hill Bachelors (first published in 2000) — which carry on the melancholy theme. Both are set on Irish farms in the hills. In the first, Bridie realises her hopes of finding a husband have been dashed now that she’s trapped on the farm looking after her father who has had a leg amputated; and in the second, Paulie returns home to help his widowed mother and reluctantly settles into a new life as a “hill bachelor” when all the women of marriageable age that he courts don’t want to take up with him.

This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer (yes, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews). I bought this one earlier in the year, attracted by the new livery that Penguin has used to republish all of Trevor’s wonderful stories. I’m mighty tempted to buy the whole set: I’m yet to read anything by this author that I haven’t immediately fallen in love with. You can read all my other reviews on my William Trevor page.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘Small Circle of Beings’ by Damon Galgut

Small Circle of Beings

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 224 pages; 2012.

First published in 2005, Small Circle of Beings, by Damon Galgut, comprises a novella and four short stories.

All five narratives in the book venture into very dark territory and all are set within the confines of the family unit, what Galgut terms a “small circle of beings”.

Childhood illness

It is the titular novella which is perhaps the most disturbing story of them all. In it we meet a cowardly mother who fails to take her nine-year-old child to hospital when he is seriously ill because she puts her needs before her son’s: she is scared of the city and does not want to leave their secluded home on a dusty road in the mountains. Her husband, a farmer, is no better. He is emotionally detached, “keeps his distance and speaks of silly things”. He does not love his son.

When a doctor pronounces that there is nothing wrong with their child they accept his proclamation, but things get worse and David is later found to have a strange growth in his throat, which puts his life at risk.

In this account of two parents struggling to come to terms with their son’s illness in vastly different ways, Galgut throws a light on the tensions and strains between husbands and wives forced to confront their greatest fears: the loss of a child. He shows how different priorities — a mother’s over a father’s, for instance — can have devastating consequences for all involved, and how incidents from our childhood can have far-reaching repercussions long into our adult lives.

Written in delicate prose from the mother’s point of view, Small Circle of Beings wavers between claustrophobia and anxiety, love and anger. It is emotionally complex and the reader will find themselves torn between empathising with the mother and hating her for her passivity. I came away from it feeling a mix of heart ache and oppression. It is one of the most memorable novellas I have ever read.

Four stories

The four short stories that follow — Lovers, Shadows, The Clay Ox and Rick — tread similar territory, focusing on dysfunctional families, abusive parents, domestic violence and exploitation of black South Africans, all with an uncanny eye for detail and an emphasis on observational nuance.

There’s not much light relief, but it’s not Galgut’s style to shy away from humanity’s deepest flaws and failings. What he presents is ordinary white people thrust into extraordinary situations. He lets them manage for awhile, then has them flounder and it’s while they’re floundering, struggling to make sense of a new situation, that he looks at what happens to them under stress or when they think their power or sense of entitlement is under threat. The result is not always pretty.

Small Circle of Beings is a book filled with hatred, violence and antagonism. But for all the angry emotion portrayed here, Galgut is a superb stylist, making every word count and creating light-as-a-cloud prose that feels as if it might float off the page. I loved it.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 240 pages; 2010.

Reviews of Thea Astley’s novels on this blog are like buses: none for ages, then two come along at once.

First published in 1987, It’s Raining in Mango was Astley’s 10th novel. It tells the story of five generations of one family — from the 1860s to the 1980s — and touches on a wide variety of issues, including racism, sexism and homosexuality, all within a distinctly colonial Australia framework.

As ever, with most of Astley’s novels, it does not make for easy reading, but it will reward those who persevere through at least the first 60 or so pages.

Time shifts

The book’s unusual structure makes it a challenge to read. Instead of telling the story in chronological order, Astley complicates matters by constantly jumping between generations and sometimes letting time frames overlap. This does not make for a straightforward read and requires some effort on behalf of the reader to make things “work”.

Fortunately, there’s a helpful dramatis personæ at the front of the book, which provides the birth and death dates of each character, including the circumstances of their death. Without this I’m afraid I would have been totally lost.

The structure is also more akin to a collection of short stories (it won the inaugural Steele Rudd Award, a literary prize for short stories, even though it’s not branded as such) rather than a novel (a trait shared with her 14th novel Drylands), but the interconnections between characters means that it feels like a cohesive whole.

Reporting on dispossession and slaughter

When the book opens we meet an Irish-born journalist, Cornelius Laffey, who leaves Sydney, dragging his family with him, to set up a newspaper in the goldfields of northern Queensland in 1861. While there he witnesses the violence toward Aboriginals, who are dispossessed of their land and, finding much empathy with their situation, reports on it:

“No attempt is made to understand the feelings or even the natural rights of the indigenous peoples along these rivers. Their fishing grounds have been disturbed. Their hunting areas are invaded. All along the Palmer and the subsidiary creeks they have been pushed off by an army of diggers cradling for gold.[…] For every digger speared or killed along the mudsoaked track to the Palmer, there would be ten or more natives butchered. Many of the butchered are women and children. Blacks are now being shot on sight as if they were some pernicious vermin, and the outraged righteousness of one of our sub-inspectors of police has given sanction to the indiscriminate slaughter of these dispossessed people.”

This brutal, honest reporting results in him losing his job — and so sets into motion the cycle of incredible ups and downs for the Laffey family over the next 120 years.

Heartbreaking individual stories

During the course of this “novel” (I use the term loosely) we meet a wide variety of characters, most of whom are struggling to keep their heads above water, including Cornelius’ wife, who runs a pub, their son and daughter George and Nadine, and their respective partners.

Their individual stories, told in separate chapters, are gritty, often heartbreaking and sometimes violent. Nadine, for instance, has a child out of wedlock when she is 14 and ends up working in a brothel to support herself.

It’s Raining in Mango — the title refers to an imaginary town called Mango in tropical Far North Queensland — also covers the history of an Aboriginal family, whose lives occasionally intersect with the Laffeys. This serves to remind the reader that while things may never be smooth sailing for the Laffeys, things are a lot worse for the Mumblers who have suffered violent dispossession at the hands of white settlers.

What emerges is a portrait of Australia’s hidden history:  of strangers in a strange land trying to make a go of it, and its native inhabitants being massacred in the name of colonial “progress”.

For a much more intellectual — and insightful — take on It’s Raining in Mango, please see this article in the Australian Book Review.

This is my 49th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 32nd for #AWW2016.

2016 YWOYA, Author, Book review, Fiction, Jessie Greengrass, John Murray, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It’ by Jessie Greengrass

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It

Fiction – paperback; John Murray Originals; 192 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Solitude and loneliness are common threads that run throughout the 12 short stories in this collection, by debut author Jessie Greengrass, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.

The self-titled story, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, sets the scene for all that follows, for each tale is written in the same precise, almost cold, but always elegant style with nary an adjective to be seen. There’s a certain kind of melancholia at work here — and a clarity that defies the often convoluted sentence structure.

Yet the subject matter varies wildly from story to story and even the time periods swing between past, present and future. Nothing feels predictable and starting each new story feels like going on an unexpected adventure into unexplored territory: you’re never sure where it’s going to take you.

And yet, despite the characters being (mainly) nameless (sometimes we don’t even know their gender, nor their age), it’s easy to identify with them, to empathise with their circumstances, their predicaments, their successes and their failures. Everything feels deeply personal, if somewhat quirky.

Some personal favourites

A handful of stories stand out. The lead one, of a hunter who reveals his role in the demise of the Great Auk, is a haunting tale of loss, greed and cruelty, but it’s tinged with unexpected comic moments, too, such as this description of the birds:

… they were clumsy, they waddled, their walk was ungainly; they swayed and rolled as they struggled to put one flat foot upon the rock in front of the other and often they fell over. We caught them up and pulled the feathers that we needed and then let them go half-plucked and even then they would not run but only stand bemused and blinking and naked where we put them. And then later they would die of their own accord.

Humour is well used in the story All the Other Jobs, too. In this short tale a discontented narrator, paralysed by indecision, dreams of running away and leading a new, more productive life. Who doesn’t recognise this kind of thoroughly modern 21st century behaviour?

I spent a lot of time on the internet, cycling through a set series of websites, letting my eyes drift down one page and then another without any effort to read or absorb, past even passive consumption. I found this so comforting. Hours would recede in the clicking of links without me retaining any clear impression of what I had been looking at. It was a kind of abnegation, a loss of self in the expectation of each loading page, the small reward of its arrival after the brief wait so much more satisfying than any of the information it might contain.

My favourite story has to be Winter, 2058, a strangely haunting tale set in the future that reads like something John Wyndham might have dreamed up. Here, on the edge of the North York Moors, the narrator must guard watch over an “intrusion” site, an area where mysterious phenomena occur — odd lights and sounds, changes in temperature — that cause people to disappear or befuddles their brains:

We were told that when an intrusion was entering the active phase of its cycle the first thing we would notice would be that things would feel colder. Not just the temperature but the world itself: we would feel that the world had become colder, that something had been stripped away from it, some quality of receptiveness or responsiveness which had previously made it home. The feeling would bloom slowly from unease into fear.

This eerie story of displacement, of the unknowable power of nature, of a bid to make sense of something unexplained  is wholly mesmirising from start to finish. You become immersed in a kind of supernatural fairytale in which nothing quite makes sense and it leaves you with a deep sense of dread. I suspect it’s a metaphor for learning that no matter how many friends and family we might have we’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. How deep is that?

As you might have guessed, I was very much impressed by this tantalising collection of odd, often quirky, tales. There’s a deeply philosophical bent to them, perhaps no surprise given the author studied philosophy, and richly humane, filled with ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They’re also hugely imaginative and quite unlike anything I’ve read before. More please.

This is my 4th and final book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward