20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, Huo Yan, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Dry Milk’ by Huo Yan

Fiction – paperback; Giramondo; 92 pages; 2019. Translated by Duncan M. Campbell.

A book set in New Zealand, written by a Chinese woman, translated by a scholar from New Zealand, and published by a small independent press in Australia, Huo Yan’s Dry Milk has all the trademarks of an unusual book.

Thwarted ambition

Easily read in one sitting, it’s a tautly written tale of a Chinese immigrant whose three decades in Auckland has not lived up to the ambitions that drove him to begin a new life in a foreign country.

John Lee, once a librarian in Beijing, has spent the past decade running an antiques shop in his adopted city of Auckland. It’s the kind of rundown, overstocked business that people only visit to escape the rain.

He is married to a woman who is seriously disabled and remains nameless throughout the story. He only married her as a means to escape China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution when it was discovered she had distant relatives in New Zealand. He treats her with cruelty and disdain, using her as a prop in his shop to prey on the kindness of customers.

He placed a glass jar on the counter beside her and made up a sign that read: ‘HELP THE MENTALLY DISABLED: PLEASE GIVE GENEROUSLY’. Taking out two crumpled ten-dollar notes from his pocket, he placed these in the jar, along with some coins. At the end of every day he would count the money in the jar, sometimes finding that as much as twenty dollars had been donated. At such times he would give the woman a peck on the cheek, as if to reward her, his dry lips brushing her withered skin.

Life holds little excitement for him beyond the occasional gossip session with others in the ex-pat Chinese community and his penchant for cooking elaborate Western meals, albeit on a tightly controlled budget.

When an opportunity arises to make a little money renting out the spare room in his house to an attractive young Chinese student, Jiang Xiaoyu, he takes it. But from the outset it’s clear his motives are nefarious, for he tells Jiang that his wife is his sister, then spends an inordinate amount of time spying on her, listening to her through the walls and cooking her meals in a bid to win her trust.

When yet another opportunity presents itself to make even more money, this time through an export business selling powdered milk to the Chinese (hence the title of the book), John Lee grabs this too — though it does take him some time to decide whether he can afford to do so. But the scheme, along with the student who lives in his house, is not everything that it appears to be…

The human cost of greed

Dry Milk is a dark tale about identity, community and greed. As a portrait of Auckland, it fails to portray the city in a friendly, accepting light. John Lee regards it as a “slow city” offering little opportunity, and even though he has connections with the proactive Chinese Community Hope Association (and is later nominated for an executive officer role), he struggles to fit in.

The narrative is underpinned by a creepy air of dislocation, alienation, voyeurism and misogyny. There are no likeable characters here, but their flaws, foibles and weaknesses are all-too-human. When John Lee finally gets his (violent and disturbing) comeuppance, it’s hard to know whether to cheer or feel pity for him.

There’s no doubt that Dry Milk is an exceptionally well-crafted story by a skilful writer. Powerful and thought-provoking, it looks at the human cost of treating others as commercial opportunities and leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. I won’t forget it in a hurry

Lisa Hill has also reviewed this novella at ANZLitLovers and so has Tony at Tony’s Reading List.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter and my 19th for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought my copy from my local independent book store last August for $22.95.

2020 Miles Franklin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Carrie Tiffany, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

Fiction – paperback; Text; 183 pages; 2019.

Carrie Tiffany’s third novel, Exploded View, is a strangely hypnotic story about a teenage girl in the 1970s plotting to get the better of the man who has become her stepfather.

At its most base level, it is a tale of child sexual abuse, albeit done in a subtle, nuanced way (many of the references are elliptical rather than direct), but it’s also a powerful tale of a teenager taking control of her life in the only way she feels is open to her: by sabotaging the car engines her “man father” works on for a living.

It is a book ripe with metaphors and euphemisms. Cars and their mechanical workings feature heavily. The girl’s “man father” runs an unlicensed automotive workshop at the back of the house and she’s often called upon to help out.

Small acts of defiance

In the evenings, she climbs out her bedroom window and tinkers with the engines, removing hidden screws or putting grit in places it shouldn’t go, in the hope this will ruin her man father’s reputation. She even takes various cars on evening joy rides, pushing the vehicles out of hearing distance before turning the key. On weekdays she breaks into a neighbour’s house and makes herself at home, often eating the “fat lady’s” food or watching her TV. It’s hard not to see these acts of defiance as a call for help,.

The girl knows a lot about engines and studies Scientific Publications Holden Workshop Manual Series No. 15, which is secretly hidden under her bed. It is the exploded view diagrams, those that show the spaces between the parts and how they fit together, that she likes best.

It’s hard not to read the descriptions of the way engine parts slide together and move about as thinly disguised euphemisms for sexual acts. Even the bits that explain how to take things apart appear to mirror the pain and hurt that the girl is so carefully disguising.

Any engine can be stripped down and reassembled if you know how. When a human body is taken apart there’s no way it can ever be put back together again.

But for all her acts of defiance, the girl is introverted and quiet, she remains mute for 60 days and watches TV shows — Mash, Matlock, Get Smart, The Brady Bunch et al — to figure out how a girl should act.

She should be cautious, but a girl should not be silent. She should have a voice that tinkles like a bell. Words are made in the head and sent down to the throat for speaking. It happens instantly. Except when a part is broken and the words go around and around inside instead. If they ever found their way out who knows what mess they would make?

A story in three parts

The novel is structured in three parts, one of which describes an agonisingly long road trip — “Eight days in the car. Three days in the house of father man’s friend. Eight days home again” — from the west coast of Australia to the east coast. It is during this journey that the girl feels safe, no doubt because there is never any alone time with her father man; her mother and her brother are always in the car with them.

This trip, detailed in delicious vignettes, is rich with feeling — of claustrophobia, of frustration, of fear — and is littered with descriptions of death — of roadkill, of foxes hung up on fences, of road traffic accidents — but there are also some moments of joy and humour.

When a mother needs to go to the toilet a place has to be found with trees and bushes and everyone has to stay in the car and pretend it isn’t happening. The mother walks in a long way through the bushes, placing her feet carefully between the clumps of grass in case of snakes. It takes a long time. Once, when my mother barely had her legs back in the car, father man drove off because he could see a caravan coming up from behind.

The story culminates in a not unexpected tragedy, highlighting how crimes of trespass — whether human or otherwise — can have long-lasting, devastating consequences.

Exploded View has been nominated for numerous awards, including the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; the 2019 NIB Waverley Literary Award; the 2020 Booktopia Favourite Australian Book; Literary Fiction Book of the Year at the 2020 Australian Book Industry Awards; the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award; and the 2020 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. It won The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award at the Queensland Literary Awards last year.

Please note, it does not appear to be available outside of Australia but it can be ordered direct from the publisher for a flat overseas shipping fee.

This is my 8th book for #AWW2020, my 4th for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award and my 18th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought my copy secondhand last September.

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Mary Costello, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text

‘The River Capture’ by Mary Costello

Fiction – paperback; Text; 257 pages; 2019.

Mary Costello’s The River Capture is a gently moving novel about a lonely young man who falls in love before it morphs into something else entirely: a stream of consciousness-like tale that mirrors the man’s descent into a short-lived madness.

A book of two halves

When the book opens we meet Luke O’Brien, an English teacher with specialist knowledge of James Joyce and his masterpiece Ulysses.

He has taken a leave of absence to work on a book about his favourite topic but this has been extended beyond the planned year following the death of his beloved mother. Now, living alone on the family farm, which is situated on a bend in the River Sullane in Co. Cork, he spends much of his time reading, walking the farm, ruminating about his family’s past (a string of tragic deaths in the 1940s that had long-lasting repercussions) and running errands for his elderly Aunt Ellen who lives nearby.

One day his quiet existence is disrupted with the arrival of a woman called Ruth, who has her uncle’s dog in her car. “He’s gone into a nursing home,” she explains. “I have to go back to Dublin and I can’t take him [the dog] with me.”

“I’m sorry for barging in on you like this,” she says. “They told me in SuperValu that you might want a dog. I was going to put up a notice and the woman at the till said you might be interested.”

Luke, who has a “bleeding heart for animals”, takes in the dog, partly because he is instantly attracted to Ruth. Their relationship plays out over the course of a few weeks, tentative at first because Ruth is wary of Luke’s almost immediate confession that he has had relationships with both men and women in the past (“I like to think of myself as just… sexual, not bisexual or straight or gay or any other label”), but before long the relationship becomes serious.

A demand to end the romance

Luke introduces Ruth to his Aunt Ellen, who is initially delighted that her nephew has found a companion because she truly wants him to be happy. But the day after the meeting Ellen orders an end to the relationship — “She’s bad news, Luke. Give her up.”

This demand throws Luke into a desperate tailspin. His devotion and loyalty to his aunt, and, in turn, the family name, supersedes his own happiness. (Note that I haven’t revealed Ellen’s reasoning because I don’t wish to spoil the plot.)

He breaks it off with Ruth via email and then spends an evening getting exceedingly drunk on Tempranillo and whiskey, descending into a single night of madness in which he cross-examines himself in a kind of parody of “Ithaca”, the penultimate chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

To what does he now turn his attention?
To the copy of Ulysses propped open (at pages 776 and 777) on the bookstand.

 

What does the sight of Ulysses, or the mere thought of it, always provoke in him?
Evocations of home. Metaphorical home, repose of the soul. A longing for Bloom, for filial love, fellow feeling.

 

Has he read the novel, in consecutive pages, up to this point?
He has circled back and forth in a haphazard but sometimes chronological pattern. Since his first reading (haphazardly) in the second term of First Year English at UCD in 1997, during which he failed to complete the Cyclops, Oxers of the Sun and Circe episodes, he has, on many occasions, read random episodes in their entirety and certain (favoured) episodes repeatedly, chronologically, obsessively (Emmau, Ithaca and Penelope).

Not a book to rush through

The River Capture is the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for; it requires patience and a slow reading to get the most out of it. It is not a book to rush through. It is filled with metaphors and recurring themes — when the soul begins, how water moves, the restrictive nature of labels, and the influence of sexually transmitted diseases on the creative process  — and is particularly focused on love and loyalty.

There are, as you might expect, many references to Joyce and Ulysses, but I don’t think you necessarily have to know much about either to enjoy the book. I have read Ulysses so some of the references — lines and scenes and characters from the book — resonated, particularly the following line:

Why does Bloom, at thirty-eight, seem so old — old enough for Stephen to pronounce him ‘a profound ancient male’?

That’s because when I began reading The River Capture I was under the illusion that Luke was in his 50s only to discover he was 34 and just living the life of an older man.

But equally, much of the book has no direct link to Ulysses, not least the idea of the “river capture”, a geological process by which one river captures the flow of another river or drainage system. This thwarting of one stream of water could be seen to be a metaphor for Luke’s life when Ellen demands that he give up a fledgling romance, forcing him to follow a different path, as it were.

Ultimately, as much as I admired The River Capture it didn’t quite live up to my love of  Costello’s debut novel Academy Street, published in 2014, which one of the best novels I have EVER read. I hold her short story collection, The China Factory, in similar high regard. I would recommend either of those as good introductions to her work.

This is my 4th book for the 2020 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 17th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought this book when it was first published in Australia last October (the receipt tucked inside reveals that the actual date of purchase was 22 October) but kept putting off reading it because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my high expectation…

Australia, Author, Book review, Dan Box, Non-fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, true crime

‘Bowraville’ by Dan Box

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 336 pages; 2019.

Bowraville is a small country town inland from the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Around 15 per cent of the population is Aboriginal. In a five-month period, from late 1990 to early 1991, three children were murdered. All were indigenous Australians. All had disappeared after parties in the town. All were linked to a white man suspected of the crime, but no one was ever convicted.

This book, Bowraville by Dan Box, charts what happened when a homicide detective who had been working on the case contacted Dan to suggest he pursue the murders. It was more than two decades after the fact and the victims had seemingly been forgotten by law enforcement and the justice system. Their families still mourned for them and were desperate for the perpetrator, whom they believed to live among them, to be held to account.

In May 2016, Box, a crime reporter with The Australian newspaper, hosted a five-part podcast about the Bowraville murders. I have not listened to that podcast (you can find it on Apple podcasts here) but my understanding is that the book builds on his examination of the crimes and brings the case up to date. The serial killing remains unsolved after 25 years.

Three missing children

The victims, all living in houses about 100m apart, were:

  • Colleen Walker-Craig, 16, who disappeared on 13 September 1990. Her body has never been found, but articles of her clothing were discovered weighed down by rocks in the Nambucca River.
  • Evelyn Greenup, four, who went missing three weeks later, on 4 October. Her skeletal remains were found in bushland in April 1991.
  • Clinton Speedy-Duroux, 16, who was last seen on the morning of 1 February 1991. His remains were found in bushland on 18 February.

Dan spends times with the victims’ families to determine the circumstances of their disappearances. He speaks to police and lawyers and finds many glaring omissions in the criminal investigation. Police initially claimed that the missing children had just “gone walkabout” and didn’t follow up leads until bodies were found.

As part of his investigation, Dan also secures an interview with the main suspect, a labourer living in Bowraville, who was arrested for the murder of Speedy-Duroux but later acquitted by a Supreme Court jury in 1994. The same suspect was also charged with the murder of Greenup at a later date but, again, he was acquitted in a separate court case in 2006. No one has ever been charged or convicted of all three crimes together.

Dan’s tenacious reporting and investigation did result in changes being made to double jeopardy legislation — the principle that no one should face trial for the same crime twice — in NSW. This opened the way for the man acquitted of Speedy-Duroux and Greenup’s murder to go on retrial if “fresh and compelling evidence” was uncovered.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say a retrial was not granted, even though Dan’s interview with the suspect unveiled evidence that had never been admitted in court before.

Fight for justice

Reading Bowraville was an eye-opening experience. It covers a lot of ground and occasionally gets bogged down in soporific detail, but it is a confronting portrait of a deeply divided society, a town where black people are pitted against white, where racial prejudice has infused generations and left a legacy of hate and violence.

The book’s major achievement is the way in which it clearly demonstrates that black justice and white justice in modern Australia are two different things. Three children living in the same street were murdered in a short space of time, but no one in authority seemed to take the crimes seriously and few Australians have even heard about the murders. The suggestion is that if the children were white, it would be all over the media. Having read this compelling book, it is hard to argue otherwise.

As well as an illuminating examination of the tenacity required to seek and fight for justice, Bowraville is also an interesting look at what happens when a journalist becomes part of the story. “I have changed from being a reporter about this case to being a campaigner, joining with the police and childrens’ families in calling for the murders to go back to court,” Dan writes. Later he adds: “That’s what I am now. Not a reporter, not a campaigner. A witness.”

Bowraville is a gripping true-crime tale, but it’s also a disturbing look at the failings of the Australian justice system and Australian society as a whole.

This is my 16th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought this book when it was first published last July and began reading it in December but put it aside, with only half of it read, when things at work got a bit hectic. I picked it up again earlier this month to finish the last 150+ pages.

Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA

‘Fortune’s Rocks’ by Anita Shreve

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 476 pages; 2001.

It’s been three years since I last read an Anita Shreve novel. She’s usually my go-to author when I’m looking for some light but immersive reading. I like her plot-driven stories, which are typically peopled by strong, resilient women often caught up in moral or ethical dilemmas.

Fortune’s Rock, published in 1999, was her eighth novel (before she died in 2018, she penned 19 novels — and I’ve read most of them).

Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s an age-old story of a teenage girl falling for an older man and then being forced to suffer the consequences of her illicit liaison by a society that sees everything in black or white.

A summer love affair

When the book opens we meet 15-year-old Olympia Biddeford walking along a New Hampshire beach one hot June day in 1899. Her family — a poorly, mainly bed-ridden mother and a rich, scholarly father who publishes a literary magazine and home schools his daughter — have decamped to the beachside community of Fortune’s Rocks from Boston for the summer.

In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the sea wall of Fortune’s Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire.

All the men on the beach staring at her sets the tone for the rest of this 400-plus page novel, for Olympia, on the cusp of womanhood, is subject to the male gaze at almost every turn. When she meets her father’s friend,  John Warren Haskell, an essayist and medical doctor, the way he looks at her takes on deeper meaning.

There is no mistaking this gaze. It is not a look that turns itself into a polite moment of recognition or a nod of encouragement to speak. Nor is it the result of an absentminded concentration of thought. It is rather an entirely penetrating gaze with no barriers or boundaries. It is scrutiny such as Olympia has never encountered in her young life. And she thinks that the entire table must be stopped in that moment, as she is, feeling its nearly intolerable intensity.

Despite 41-year-old Haskell being married with four children, the pair go on to have a passionate love affair that opens Olympia’s eyes, not only to love and desire, but to the wider world in general. When she accompanies Haskell on one of his medical rounds at the impoverished mill town in nearby Ely, she witnesses childbirth for the first time and begins to understand that her upbringing has been rather staid and sheltered. This only heightens her desire to seek out new experiences.

Their summer-long affair, which comprises trysts in Haskell’s hotel room while his wife is away, and later in the half-constructed coastal cottage that Haskell is building for his family, skirts dangerous territory. There is an unknown witness to their affair, who manages to expose their wrongdoing at the worst possible moment: Olympia’s extravagant 16th birthday gala party attended by more than 100 people.

Plot-driven story

This is a plot-driven novel and it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the story for others yet to read it. Let’s just say that ruination results for both Olympia and Haskell’s family, and a good portion of the novel is set in a courtroom.

But for all its old-fashioned sentiment, its expert portrayal of late 19th century morals and its championing of young women’s rights, I had some issues with Fortune’s Rocks.

It’s too long for a start. A judicious cut of at least 100 pages would not take anything away from the plot. It feels a bit prone to histrionics in places, too, and is far too predictable from start to finish. And the courtroom bits towards the end, particularly in the way that Olympia behaves, seems informed by late 20th century attitudes.

And don’t get me started about John Haskell having his way with a 15-year-old! Shreve paints a very sympathetic portrait of him and suggests that Olympia knew exactly what she was doing —

“Though I was very young and understood little of the magnitude of what I was doing, I was not seduced. Never seduced. I had will and some understanding. I could have stopped it at any time.”

— but I still didn’t buy it. This kind of relationship would be scandalous today; more than 100 years ago it would have been ruinous!

In short, this isn’t the best Shreve book I’ve read, nor is it the worst (that honour lies with A Wedding in December). It was a good distraction for lockdown reading, requiring little brainpower, and kept me entertained for a week. But on the whole, Fortune’s Rocks — even with its happy, redemptive ending — didn’t set my world on fire.

This is my 15th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I “mooched” a paperback copy of this book years and years ago (circa 2006), but I read the Kindle edition for this review.