Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hybrid Publishers, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Hollingworth, Setting

‘The Colour of the Night’ by Robert Hollingworth


Fiction – paperback; Hybrid Publishers; 321 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first came to the UK in 1998 and told people I came from Melbourne, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the Australian soap Neighbours, which is set there. At that time Brits were such fans of the show it was screened twice daily. I still remember staying in a youth hostel in Glasgow and being holed up in my room by a backpacker from Northern Ireland who knew all the characters and storylines inside out but mistakenly thought many of the locations, including the suburb Erinsborough, were real places.

I mention this because if Neighbours is your only reference for what life in the Melbourne suburbs is like then this book by Robert Hollingworth will shatter all your illusions — but in a good way.

The Colour of the Night follows the lives of a group of neighbours living in a terrace of three houses on Frederick Street in an inner-city suburb. They don’t know each other when the novel opens but by the end they’re all familiar with one another in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes shocking.

Meet the neighbours

Stefanie and Simon are married artists, with two children — 18-year-old Jess, a Goth with a drug habit who self-harms, and James, who lives in a bungalow in the back garden and has a job in roadworks.

Next door lives divorcée Adele, who has given up a career in nursing to make more money as an escort, and her son, Elton, who has dropped out of university and spends his entire time online.

Then there is Nikos, a Greek landlord, who rents out the terraced house on the corner to two tenants: Arman, a refugee from Afghanistan who now drives a taxi, and Benton, an Englishman who has an unhealthy interest in children.

Drawing all these neighbours together is Shaun, an 11-year-old boy, orphaned by the Black Saturday bush fires. He has a great affinity for nature — “He entered the bush as other children entered an interactive game, although Shaun’s console control was little more than a snapped stick, his keyboard the whole forest, his mouse a mouse” — so when he moves to the city to live with his aunt, Adele, and cousin, Elton, it comes as somewhat of a shock.

Technological advance

The author, who takes his time to introduce each of these well-drawn characters chapter by chapter, explores many themes in this intriguing novel, including the city versus the country, and nature versus digital technology. He deftly builds up a series of interconnections between everyone (which occasionally relies on a smidgen too much coincidence, but that’s by the by) and in doing so shows how the concept of community in the real world has often been lost, perhaps because we’re too busy building up our social networks online.

There are minor disasters — a DIY basement excavation has repercussions for the entire terrace, for instance —  a blossoming love affair and a case of adultery, but Hollingworth doesn’t resort to cheap operatics: he keeps things fairly restrained and, to his credit, doesn’t let his narrative succumb to predictable outcomes.

It feels like a thoroughly contemporary novel, focusing as it does on how quickly our world is moving in terms of technology. This exchange between Elton and Shaun, whom are just eight years apart in age, is but one example:

… Shaun asked on an impulse, ‘Elton, what did you do where you were my age?’
‘What I do now, I guess. But the computer games were pretty basic. Google was new, no Instagram, no Twitter or Vine, no Tumblr or Kik or…’
‘What did you do when you were five?’
Elton tried to think. ‘It was a different world then, Shaun. You couldn’t do stuff that we take for granted today. Just 64 kilobytes. Unbelievable.’

The Colour of the Night also asks important questions about spirituality, our connections with the natural world and our relationship to art and culture. It’s filled with great dialogue, intriguing characters (with even more intriguing back stories) and brilliant descriptions of people and places. But when all is said and done it’s just a great story well told about contemporary life in modern Australia. And, needless to say, it’s far more authentic — and entertaining — than any episode of Neighbours.

Please note that you won’t find The Colour of the Night in book stores outside of Australia. However, you can order a copy direct from the publisher or buy an electronic edition from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Author, Book review, Canongate, England, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Scarlett Thomas, Setting

‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 450 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I read dozens of novels every year but I can quite honestly say I’ve never read anything quite so weird nor as wonderful as Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo.

Thomas, who was named by The Independent in 2001 as one of the 20 Best Young Writers, has an idiosyncratic style that is fiercely intelligent but imminently readable. This is a book that brims with ideas, is stuffed full of one-liners, and even includes a crossword puzzle and a list of prime numbers at the rear. It’s hugely ambitious, wanders off on what seems like a million tangents and editorializes on everything from the state of Western medicine to the “cruelty” of the dairy industry, but somehow it all comes together to form a coherent and immensely entertaining narrative.

The story revolves around Alice Butler, a 29-year-old “creative” at PopCo, a global toy company (“the third largest in the world”), during an “away” trip in the English countryside. With all the employees pitted against each other to come up with a new product for the teenage girl market, Alice buzzes with excitement and creativity. But then she begins receiving secret coded messages, which indicate that there might be more going on in PopCo than meets the eye.

Alongside this main narrative thread is a back story about Alice’s childhood in which she was raised by her  grandparents, two mathematical geniuses, whom she very much adored. This gives us a glimpse of the girl who grew up to be a fiercely independent woman with a penchant for numbers and puzzles. From this we learn not only about her troubled schooldays in which she was too geeky to fit in, but about the highly secretive work involving code-breaking and treasure-hunting, to which her grandfather devoted his life.

Throw in a healthy bit of romance (and sex), a whole lot of stuff about marketing and mathematics, and you’ll get some brief idea of what PopCo is about.

While I can’t say that I found the ending particularly satisfying (it seemed slightly too far-fetched for my liking), I did very much enjoy reading this book and learning about code-breaking and all kinds of mathematical rules, which surprised me given I am not a numbers person at all. But what I loved most about this book was its cynicism, particularly in relation to marketing and the dubious practices some advertisers carry out.

This is what Alice begins to realise part-way through the book:

It is all dishonest. We are twenty-first century con artists. Marketing, after all, is what you do to sell people things they don’t need. If people needed, say, a T-shirt with a logo on it, no one would have to market the idea to them. Marketing, advertising… What started off being, ‘Hey, we make this! Do you want it?’ turned into ‘If you buy this, you might get laid more,’ and then mutated into, ‘If you don’t buy this, you’ll be uncool, no one will like you, everyone will laugh at you and you may as well kill yourself now. I’m telling you this because I am your friend and you have to trust me.’ Marketing is what gives value to things that do not have any actual intrinsic value. We put eyes on a bit of plastic, but it is marketing that actually brings the piece of plastic to life. It is marketing that means we can sell a 10p bit of cloth for £12.99.

There’s no doubt that PopCo has a conscience and treads a subversive line, but it is also quirky, unusual and damn good fun and is perfect if you’re looking for something a little different to cleanse the reading palette. Highly recommended.