20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tahiti, TBR40, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 226 pages; 2008.

Somerset Maugham is a consummate storyteller and this novel, which was first published in 1919, is no exception.

The Moon and Sixpence is about a man called Charles Strickland who forsakes everything — including his wife, children and a lucrative job as a stockbroker — in the pursuit of a dream. The rumour mill suggests he left his wife in London for another woman in France, but that is not the case: aged 40, he left her to free up his life to become a painter.

A desire to make art

The story is told through the eyes of an acquaintance, a young writer, who initially meets Strickland through his wife. Over the course of the novel, he gets to know Strickland quite well — and it soon becomes apparent he’s not a particularly nice person. He’s gruff and bad mannered and blunt and cares for nothing except exercising his creative inclinations. He doesn’t even care if his paintings sell. He rarely shows them to people. He simply wants to make art.

There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.

Said to be inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence explores what it is to eschew material possessions, money, domestic happiness, family and love in pursuit of leading a truly creative life.

The bulk of the book is set in Paris, but the last few chapters are set in Tahiti, where Strickland settles into a relatively comfortable existence with a lover, whom he uses purely to satisfy his sexual urges.

Fame and fortune

Like Gaugin, Strickland’s talent remains largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but in the opening chapter we discover that his work is now highly regarded.  We know his paintings sell for high prices and that many biographies and books have been written about him. The pleasure of the novel is discovering how this came about and the collateral damage that happened along the way.

Written with Maugham’s typical insights into human psychology, in prose that occasionally drips with satire, the story is very much about the artistic life and what it is to refuse to compromise when we strive for a goal bigger than ourselves. It also shows how the sacrifices we make to pursue an obsession can have long-lasting ramifications on the people around us.

But it’s also a rip-roaring story about sex, betrayal, friendship and human behaviour — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is my 12th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 31st for #TBR40. I bought this one in 2013 not long after I read Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, a book I loved so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it, because I just didn’t have the words.

1001 books, 20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ford Madox Ford, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage, William Maxwell

‘The Château’ by William Maxwell

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 416 pages; 2012.

Do you ever finish reading a book and then feel totally ambivalent about it? When I came to the end of The Château, by William Maxwell, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Did I love it, or did I loathe it? A couple of weeks later and I still don’t quite know how I feel about it.

First published in 1961, The Château was Maxwell’s penultimate novel (he has six to his name, plus a handful of short story collections and books for children).

It’s about a young American couple, Barbara and Harold Rhodes, who go to France on holiday in 1948 as the country is still finding its feet after the Second World War. On the recommendation of a friend, they plan to stay at Château Beaumesnil in Touraine, where they will base themselves for the summer, exploring the local area, heading to Paris and other European cities (Venice, for instance), while bettering their use of the French language.

But after a long, complicated journey to get there, they don’t receive the warm welcome they had expected from the château’s owner, Mme Vienot, who seems a little “off” and neglectful of her hostessing duties towards them. They soon figure out she’s a social climber and a snob. And the other guests staying there are similarly distant and aloof.

Over time, as they settle in and come to terms with French culture, they realise they may have formed the wrong impression about Mme Vienot and her guests. They form friendships and alliances, get invited to parties and people’s homes and catch up with acquaintances in Paris, but the sense of being Other, of always being seen as privileged Americans never quite leaves them.

Not much happens in the novel; it’s not plot-driven but character-driven. It feels a little like a travelogue because it follows the ups and downs of Barbara and Harold’s travels, including their day-to-day encounters with new people, the little cafes and restaurants they visit, the tourist sites they pay homage to, the art and souvenirs they buy and the domestic dramas that ensue, usually involving Mme Vienot or misunderstandings with taxi drivers or officials.

All the while you are privy to their most intimate conversations, their indecisions about whether to stay or go, their confusion over how much to tip people, their inability to complain about service, their puzzlement as to why people they meet along the way do or say the things they do. Anyone who’s ever gone on holiday with a loved one to a foreign country will recognise a lot of those same conversations and experiences.

It’s all beautifully rendered and written in a very subtle, observant way using elegant prose, reminiscent of Richard Yates’ understated style.

But there’s a weird twist at the end. Just when you think the story has finished, Maxwell introduces Part II — entitled Some Explanations — that spans around 50 pages of meta-fiction. In it, he explains some of the unanswered questions that haunt Barbara and Harold’s trip. Why, for instance, did their friend Eugène act so horribly towards them on the train, and why did his wife Alix not say goodbye?

It makes for an interesting change in perspective and serves to highlight that the American couple’s lack of worldly experience and their linguistic and social difficulties meant they often misunderstood what was happening around them. This meant they sometimes jumped to (unfair) conclusions. It’s an interesting exercise in showing how travel can broaden the mindset, but I admit it felt quite odd coming at the end of a rather long novel about characters that — if I’m honest — weren’t especially interesting.

This is my 10th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 29th for #TBR40. I purchased it in the early 2000s in paperback form and, forgetting that I owned a copy, I also bought it on Kindle last year. (Does this happen to anyone else? I seem to buy multiple copies of books because I forget I already own it.)

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. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR40

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, France, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The Debt to Pleasure’ by John Lanchester

Fiction – paperback; Picador Classics; 232 pages; 2015.

John Lanchester’s debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a subversive black comedy about a narcissistic food snob who has a well-disguised penchant for murder.

The tale is narrated by Tarquin Winot stream-of-consciousness style in a voice that is both pompous and eccentric. He begins by stating “this is not a conventional cookbook” and then explains it was written while on a short holiday travelling “southwards through France, which is, as the reader will learn, my spiritual (and for a portion of the year, actual) homeland”. (For the rest of the year he lives in Norfolk.)

This lends the narrative a “serendipitous, ambulatory and yet progressive structure” as his wanderings are accompanied by his highbrow thoughts on food philosophy, provenance and gastronomy — or, as he describes it later, “gastro-historico-pyscho-autobiographico-antropico-philosophic lubrications”.

These, in turn, are intertwined with his own personal history, the second — and more popular (as we are constantly told) — son of wealthy parents (a successful businessman and a former stage actress), educated at home via a succession of private tutors (because his nature was judged “too fine grained and sensitive” to weather boarding school) and effectively raised by a kindly Irish nanny, called Mary T, whom he adored but then inexplicably seemed to frame for a personal theft.

Menus for all seasons

Structured around a series of seasonal menus — for winter, spring, summer and autumn — replete with recipes, it’s easy to feel that Tarquin’s thoughts on everything from what makes a good blini to the secret of a great croque monsieur (a “dab of mustard” apparently) are essentially harmless (and occasionally soporific), without quite realising he’s making a series of rather sinister confessions involving  family members and various servants.

His seemingly innocuous ramblings are dotted with laugh-out-loud funny lines and humorous asides, such as this sentence from a recipe for fish stew:

[…] then add six pints of what in England would be chlorinated former effluent (also known as ‘water’) and boil furiously.

And this introduction to his chapter titled “An Aïoli”:

‘It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.’ Thus X. Marcel Boulestin, a hero of Anglo-French culinary interaction, inexplicably omitted from ‘Larousse Gastronomique’. And which of us has not felt the truth of Boulestin’s words as we arrive in that land whose very name seems to betoken and evoke a widening of life’s sensuous possibilities, the addition of an extra few notes at either end of one’s emotional keyboard, a set of new stops on the church organ of the psyche, an expansion of every cell of one’s sensory paraphernalia, a new rapprochement between body, mind and spirit, that land which is also an idea, a medium, a mêtier, a programme, an education, a philosophy, a cuisine, a word: Provence. (On rereading that sentence I discover that, grammatically, it requires a question mark which I am, however, reluctant to supply.)

Along with his constant “mansplaining” and penchant for overly verbose sentences and often ludicrous word choices (see quote above), Tarquin’s narrative is riddled with petty jealousies mostly revolving around his older brother, a successful sculptor, whom he managed to cheat out of an inheritance. And we soon learn that the real reason for Tarquin’s holiday is not to soak up some French provincial sun, but to track down his brother’s biographer so that he can, well, let’s just say ensure that she doesn’t uncover, in the course of her research, anything that she shouldn’t…

Admittedly, I found Tarquin’s voice a little overbearing and far too conceited and arch for my liking (I could only read it in small doses), but that’s the point of the book: you’re not supposed to like this character and you’re certainly not supposed to like his deeds.

But this was a fun read — and to use a deliberately chosen pun — a rather delicious one at that!

The Debt to Pleasure won John Lanchester the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1996 and it was reissued as part of the Picador Classic imprint in 2015.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Cook by Wayne Macauley: A deliciously dark and subversive tale about a 17-year-old young offender who becomes a trainee chef under the tutelage of a Gordon Ramsay-like figure, before branching out into his own (deadly) business as a personal chef for a rich woman and her family.

This is my 7th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 26th for #TBR40. I purchased it in 2015 when it was re-issued as part of the Picador Classic imprint. I attended an event at Foyles celebrating the launch of that imprint where Lanchester discussed this book, alongside John Banville whose novel The Book of Evidence was also re-issued as part of the series. Banville also wrote the introduction to Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Lanchester kindly signed his copy for me.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sarah Schmidt, Setting, TBR40, Tinder Press, USA

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt

UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 336 pages; 2017.

When Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done came out in 2017 it generated a lot of book publicity. This was backed up by a slew of prize listings — including, for example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction and The Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Crime. It went on to win two key prizes in Schmidt’s native Australia: The ABIA Literary Fiction of the Year 2018 and the Mud Literary Award 2018.

Set in the US in the 19th century, it is based on a true story: the brutal murder, by axe, of a husband and his second wife in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden, the husband’s 32-year-old daughter, was convicted of the crime but acquitted.

This fictionalised account examines Lizzie’s possible culpability but does not provide any clear cut answers.

Different perspectives

The tale is told from various different perspectives in alternate chapters: Lizzie’s steady and responsible older sister Emma; the Borden’s hard-working Irish servant Bridget, who is saving up to return home; an enigmatic and violent stranger called Benjamin, whom may (or may not) have been hired to commit a crime against Mr Borden; and Lizzie herself.

The narrative, which is divided into three parts, jumps around a bit in terms of timeline, so some chapters are set on the day of the murder — 4 August 1892 — while others are set the day before or the day after. Section three opens almost 13 years later, before spooling back to talk about the day of the funerals.

This backwards and forwards movement gives the reader the opportunity to see how actions can be pre-planned, how things said in the past can take on different meanings in the present, and helps paint a picture of a small but complex family rife with petty jealousies, rivalries and injustices.

Failed to engage 

But I had problems with this book. I just could not engage with any of the characters. I felt like I was always one step removed from them, or that I was watching their movements through a window, never able to quite make them out through the smears on the glass.

I think this was partly to do with the fact that the voices of the characters are too similar. They almost blended into one, so I couldn’t really distinguish them. Only Bridget, with her use of  “ya” and working class English, sounded slightly different to the others.

Australian edition

And the story felt too drawn out. I wanted to hear more about the conviction and the trial, but these are only mentioned in passing right near the end, and I’m none the wiser as to why Lizzie was arrested in the first place, much less why she was acquitted by a jury.

(That said, there’s enough meat here to figure out her motivations for potentially carrying out the brutal deed.)

On a more positive note, I liked Schmidt’s prose style and her ability to paint vivid pictures using fragmentary sentences and original adverbs (“saliva-wet baby hands”, “a red-fox vixen scream”, “her stale-wood dressing table”). There’s a heavy emphasis on odours (the smell of rotting pears, rotted meat), on sounds, on the wetness of things — and both Lizzie and Benjamin seem obsessed with licking whatever they can see. This brings scenes to life, nicely aided by authentic sounding dialogue.

And there are recurring motifs — pigeons, pears, mutton and vomit — that ties everything together.

But on the whole See What I Have Done just didn’t do it for me.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2019; my 6th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 25th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in hardcover not long after it had been released because there was such a “buzz” about it. Plus, the hardcover was a thing of beauty, with orange-edged paper and an attractive cover image. But then it sat on my shelf unread and, in fact, it’s still there — in London. The copy I actually read was the Australian edition, large-format paperback, which I borrowed from Fremantle Library last week.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Africa, TBR40

‘The Impostor’ by Damon Galgut

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 249 pages; 2009.

Money, morality, loneliness and being true to yourself are the central themes in Damon Galgut’s sixth novel, The Imposter, first published in 2008.

Set in the “new” South Africa, after the dismantling of apartheid, it tells the tale of Adam Napier, an unmarried white man, who loses his job and his home and then reinvents himself as a struggling poet.

Rejecting his younger brother’s offer of a job working in his (dubious) property development company, he heads to a remote township in the Karoo, a semi-desert region in the Western Cape. He moves into a decrepit four-roomed house, with an overgrown garden, which his brother bought years ago but never lived in.

The house, filled with dust and a depressing mix of furniture, is a metaphor for Adam’s falling-apart life. He is warned that the place is filled with “presences from the past” and he convinces himself that his own shadow is a ghost with whom he has conversations.

He has one neighbour, whom he dubs the “Blue Man” because he’s always wearing blue overalls, but the pair rarely speak — it takes months before either of them is prepared to acknowledge the other’s existence. And even then they “dance” around each other, frightened of what might ensue if they develop a friendship.

Struggling writer

Adam struggles to put pen to paper and fails to write a single poem. And even when the local mayor orders him to clean up his overgrown garden or risk being fined, he doesn’t pull out any weeds, nor chop down the offending trees he’s been told to remove. It’s like he settles into a gripping listlessness and doesn’t know how to shake it off.

From this ennui, he’s offered a reprieve of sorts when he runs into an old childhood friend, Canning, who has inherited a large estate called Gondwana, comprising a hunting lodge and safari park, a short drive away. He invites Adam to come to stay for the weekend and he accepts, even though he can’t quite place Canning in his memory.

As soon as he meets Canning’s exotic black wife, Baby, he’s drawn into the couple’s lavish lifestyle, spending every weekend at their home, drinking fine wine, eating great food and exploring the stunning landscape. But there’s something not quite right. Canning is too effusive, too needy, too generous and Adam is too embarrassed to admit he can’t remember a thing about him from their school days.

Meanwhile Baby, enigmatic and mysterious, become’s Adam’s muse, sparking his imagination and giving him the inspiration to finally compose those elusive poems he’s been so desperate to write.

As the narrative progresses, Adam’s friendships, with both Canning and Baby, come under strain — in different ways — and a sense of foreboding ensues. As he unwittingly becomes drawn into a web of intrigue and corruption, with all-too sinister implications, one wonders where — and how — it’s all going to end.

A literary thriller

The Imposter is the kind of novel that draws you in. It reads like a literary thriller, but it’s really a dark exposé of modern South Africa, highlighting how the new world is colliding with the old, how some people — both black and white — are becoming incredibly wealthy, while others are still living lives of servitude.

Through Adam’s eyes we see how personal ethics are challenged on every front as the country finds its new feet and we also see the deadly repercussions that can result if you put your head above the parapet.

The book features Galgut’s typically dreamy prose, which has an almost fable-like quality to it (on more than one occasion I was reminded of Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King). He uses simple language but has an eye for poetic detail and his descriptions of the savannah landscape, for instance, are especially evocative. He also has an uncanny ear for authentic dialogue.

But what made the story so compelling for me — and made me keep speedily turning the pages — was the slow build up of suspense and the dark undercurrents bubbling away underneath the surface.

If you haven’t guessed already, I thought The Imposter was a terrific read — and one that only furthers my admiration for this very talented writer.

This is my 5th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 24th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in August 2017 as part of my plan to read his entire back catalogue. As it currently stands I’ve now read five of his novels — there are three more to go!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Charlotte Grimshaw, Fiction, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Night Book’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 320 pages; 2010.

Before I left London to move to Western Australia last month, I watched a New Zealand crime series called Bad Seed on TV.

The storyline in this five-part series felt vaguely familiar to me and later on I realised it was a weird amalgamation of two books by Charlotte Grimshaw: her 2013 novel Soon, which I had read and loved (it made my top 10 the following year); and her 2010 novel, The Night Book, which had been lurking in my TBR for about five years.

I promptly packed The Night Book in my suitcase and read it a couple of weeks ago as part of the #20BooksOfSummer challenge.

New Zealand literary fiction

Unlike the TV series, this isn’t a crime novel. It’s literary fiction focused on New Zealand’s “elites”, showing how all their money and power and career success doesn’t stop them from messing up their personal lives.

Set in Auckland, it is framed around two families whose paths cross in an unexpected way.

First there is the Hallwright family. David Hallwright, a right wing politician, is on track to become the next Prime Minister of New Zealand. He has two children by his late wife and has remarried a young woman, Roza, who is struggling with the idea of being a famous man’s wife. She’s trying to stay out of the limelight by working a regular job in publishing, all the while trying to keep her demons at bay — she is a recovering alcoholic, once had a cocaine problem and, unbeknownst to David, gave up her first child for adoption.

Then there is the wealthy, middle class Lampton family. Simon is an obstetrician and Karen is a housewife. They have three children, one of whom they fostered then adopted. Her name is Elke; she’s beautiful and intriguing and very close to Simon, who treats her more favourably than he does his natural daughter Claire.

These two families are brought together through Karen Lampton’s fundraising activities. She’s heavily involved in the (unnamed) political party that David Hallwright heads up and, together with (a reluctant) Simon, often attends political dinners and fundraising occasions. It is at these events that Simon meets Roza and the pair develop a mutual attraction — but for wildly different reasons.

Deeply flawed characters

As the novel’s richly layered narrative unfolds, we come to understand the personal struggles of all the characters but, in particular, those of Roza and Simon, who are both deeply flawed and nursing past hurts. Their strange and twisted relationship potentially threatens to not only ruin David Hallwright’s shot at being PM but could also tear apart the Lampton’s already rocky marriage.

Despite the fact most of the characters in this book are not especially likeable, it’s a compelling read, perhaps because Grimshaw treats everyone with great empathy — these are people that feel flesh and blood real. All their mistakes are entirely human.

The author is also very good at skewering contemporary life, of all the nonsense around social climbing and consumerism and conservatism, and she’s brilliant at showing how personal lives are often at odds with public personas.

The Night Book is an eye-opening insight into power and politics and how the choices people make can have long-lasting repercussions. I ate this one up in a matter of days; it’s definitely worth a read if you can track down a copy.

This is my 4th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 23rd book for #TBR40. I bought this copy at the (now defunct) Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts, held in London in 2014, after I saw the author at one of the sessions. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 266 pages; 2018.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel The Lebs is a hard-hitting look at what it is like to grow up in Australia as the Muslim son of Lebanese immigrants.

Set in an all-boys school in Sydney in the late 1990s, it’s a potent mix of profanity, sex, lust, religion, racism, misogyny and hypermasculinity.

It’s not an easy book to like. There are many confronting scenes and the language doesn’t pull its punches. Women are largely seen as sexual objects and there’s a dark undercurrent of racism running underneath it.

But this feels like an authentic world, a world in which teenage boys are full of bravado and hormones, where being different is to become an outcast, where bullying, peer pressure and tribal violence is the code by which everyone lives.

Trying to fit in

The narrator, Bani Adam, tries to fit into this world but even though all the students at Punchbowl Boys School are of Middle Eastern extraction like himself, he is uncomfortable being seen as yet another “wog boy”. He believes he is better than everyone else around him, more romantic, more academic, more akin to being Australian than Lebanese.

They’re calling me a house nigger again. I feel no shame in such names. The only shame is that I look like them, I have black eyes and black curly hair and a flat nose; I am not born with the blond hair and the blue eyes and the small, sharp nose of the man inside the television, this man who uses the alias Brian Spilner.

This is a world without parents but whose influence is everywhere, in their cultural reference points, their religion, their views on women, the ways in which they’re expected to live their adult lives.

Bani, keen to break free of the shackles of his ethnicity, discovers that his love of literature can earn him the attention of the female teacher whom he’s got a crush on. It can also help him escape the predictable working class life proscribed by his background. But when he gets a piece published in a literary magazine he keeps the news to himself in the mistaken belief that “real” writers shouldn’t have to promote themselves.

Escape from his peers

In his late teens he discovers boxing, which helps channel his aggression in a positive way, but sets him further apart from his fellow students.

The day after the fight [his first amateur boxing bout, which he wins] I run into Osama on the corner between Haldon Street and The Boulevard, right in front of the African hair salon where I once conked my black curly hair into White straight. Osama’s cheeks bulge when his gaze locks onto me. My fists tighten, dry blood along my knuckles ripping open, and I step up into his chest. A drop of sweat runs down the centre of Osama’s forehead — he knows there is something different about me, that if he speaks I’ll punch a hole through his face. And then he just nods his head and walks on. It’s over. I am free. Free at last. Allahu Akbar, I am free at last!

He finishes school but doesn’t get the grades to get into university. His contact at the literary magazine hooks him up with some community arts work and he accepts immediately, thinking it’s “the first real opportunity in my life to associate with a different race and class of people than Lebs: White writers and actors — and artists — who are progressive and civilised like me!”

But the role — creative development work for a yet-to-be-written play about “Arabs and Muslims and men” — is just a means to mine his ethnic background. And the people he is working with are far from civilised…

Comparisons to Christos Tsiolkas’ work are pretty spot on: both writers craft bold, daring and controversial fiction. Not everyone will like Ahmad’s work, but I found this a dizzying, vividly alive and thought-provoking look at an unfamiliar world.

The Lebs has just been shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

This is my 2nd book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 21st for #TBR40. I purchased this book on my trip to Australia last year after a few people recommended it to me as a title that was getting a bit of publicity. Sadly, that copy is still in London as I couldn’t bring my entire TBR with me to Western Australia, but I borrowed this one from Fremantle Library when I joined it last week in an effort to buy fewer books and read more borrowed ones!