Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain, travel

‘Homage to Barcelona’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 240 pages; 2010.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Australia, right at the bottom of the world, so removed from everywhere else, that I quickly developed a desire to travel and to explore and to discover new places and cultures. As a child and teenager I could only do it through books.

Later, as an undergrad, my interest in travel was piqued even further by classes I took in the history of human civilisation and the great gardens and landscapes of the world. When I was about 21 I distinctly remember aching to visit Italy and Spain and Rome and New York and England to see all the amazing places I had studied and learned about.

Of course, as a cash-strapped student, and later as a new graduate struggling to find a job because Australia was in the grip of an economic recession, I had to satisfy my wanderlust through books. That’s when I went through a phase of reading travelogues — Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear and Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s Worlds Apart: An Explorer’s Life are the two that stick in the mind the most.

But those kinds of books never really did it for me. If I’m honest, they bored me. It was a genre I quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t until I  left Australia for the first time, aged 29, that I got to explore the Northern Hemisphere. During my 30s and 40s I learned a valuable lesson: those travelogues don’t really resonate with me unless I’ve already visited the places that are mentioned in the book, or, better still, if I’m in-situ at the time of reading.

Which is a long-winded way of getting around to saying what I really wanted to say: that reading Colm Tóibín’s travelogue-cum-memoir Barcelona while I was actually in Barcelona was an immeasurably pleasurable experience.

In this book, the mere mention of the quiet, dark alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, which I had explored thoroughly for an entire afternoon, or the descriptions of Plaça Reial, where I’d treated myself to a glass of white Rioja and a plate of deep-fried anchovies while watching passersby, felt all the more special because I had experienced them first hand.

Plaça Reial is a large, exotic-looking square, that is lined with restaurants and cafes, the perfect place to people watch

 

Bishops Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter, looks medieval but was built in 1928 to match the style of the two Gothic buildings it links together

 

The chapter on Antoni Gaudí — A Dream of Gaudí — gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the man’s amazing architectural achievements, the Sagrada Família (his great unfinished Catholic cathedral) and Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera or the “stone quarry”), both of which I’d visited and marvelled over, my jaw hanging open with the sheer wonder and beauty of them.

The Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed until 2032!

 

Casa Milà, built in the early part of the 20th century, was the last private residence designed by Gaudi

 

But the book is much more than a tourist guide to the city. It’s a comprehensive look at Barcelona’s history, its food and culture, its nightlife, its artistic achievements and its political ups and downs. Tóibín’s lyrical writing, which I know so well from his novels (you can see reviews of them here), is only equalled by the subject matter he covers such as the artists (Picasso, Miró, Dali) and the urban designers and architects that shaped the city.

It’s written with all the insight of someone who has lived and breathed the city (Tóibín lived there from 1975 — “two months before the death of Franco” — until 1978, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.)

Reading it now, almost 30 years later after it was first published in 1990 (just as Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympic Games), some of it appears to be a little out of date. For instance, Plaça Reial, he writes, is best avoided because it was “reputed to be the source of all the crime in the city centre, the place where the handbag-snatchers and the dope dealers hang out” and he shares similar advice about the rest of the Barri Gòtic, which has clearly been much cleaned up crime-wise since then.

But this hardly seems to matter, for Barcelona is a wonderful book that celebrates a wonderful European city. It’s a beguiling portrait of a sometimes troubled place, one that continues to forge — and fight for — its own Catalan identity. And it’s rich with personal insights and anecdotes, almost as if Tóibín is your own private tour guide. What more could you want from a travelogue?

The photographs in this post were taken during my solo trip to Barcelona on 19-22 March 2019. There are a lot more on my Instagram account if you fancy scrolling back through my timeline.

20 books of summer (2017), Africa, Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut

In a strange room by Damon Galgut

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 192 pages; 2010.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.

Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room is a lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

Divided into three seemingly unrelated parts — The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian —  it merges in the reader’s mind to form a seamless whole.

If you’ve ever gone travelling/backpacking, felt alienated or not known what you want from life, it will resonate.

Melancholy sadness

Written in straightforward prose, but with a haunting lilt to it, Galgut takes the reader on a journey that feels like a blend of autobiography (in some sections the narrative switches between first person and third person, with a meta-fictional “Damon” as the focus), reportage and literary fiction.

He beautifully captures the sense of dislocation one can experience when passing through places so that nothing feels quite real and yet everything appears strange, almost threatening, especially if you are not “a traveller by nature” and are riddled with anxiety. Yet this heightened vulnerability also gives the world “a power it doesn’t have in ordinary life”.

He’s wonderful at exposing the myth that travel is always glamorous or exciting: sometimes it’s nothing more than waiting around.

A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb. From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.

Petty squabbles on the road

And he’s very good at examining the relationships between people on the road, whether the tensions between travelling companions or friendships forged with people you meet along the way. This element is particularly well examined in the second part of the book, when the narrator goes on an extended walking holiday with Reiner, a German he meets in section one.

There is an unspoken sexual tension between the two, but neither of them acts on it and this spills over into bickering and conflicts over simple things such as where to set up their tents and what to eat. And behind all this is a further point of strain: Reiner is financing the trip for both of them and in holding the money he also wields power over his companion:

But whenever they stop to buy something there is a silent battle about what they will choose and who will be allowed to have it. Reiner continues to buy his chocolates, for example, but if I want something there is often a dispute, hmm I don’t know about that what do we need that for. And sometimes Reiner will buy something for himself, a box of sweets or a bottle of water, and wait for his companion to ask. The asking is humiliating, which Reiner knows. Money is never just money alone, it is a symbol for other deeper things, on this trip how much you have is a sign of how loved you are, Reiner hoards the love, he dispenses it as a favour, I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.

(Notice the switching between “he” and “I” in the paragraph above.)

A realistic portrait of travel

The book also looks at the more pragmatic problems of travel, such as border crossings, finding safe accommodation in hostile territory and what happens when you or your companion falls ill on the road. There’s also the age-old problem of whether you should bother to keep in touch with people once you part ways.

And my favourite dilemma: what to do when the travel stops? Do you put down roots, or keep hitting the road? Do you sacrifice the security of a conventional life, or take a risk and lead your life in a more adventurous way?

He goes to London, but the same restlessness comes over him there, and he goes on somewhere else. And somewhere else again. Five months later he finds himself in a strange country, at the edge of a strange town, with dusk coming down. He is watching people drifting into a funfair on the other side of an overgrown expanse of ground.

If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved this book, so much so I ordered Galgut’s entire back catalogue in the wake of it (apart from The Good Doctorwhich I read a couple of years ago). But to write about it here seems almost impossible. This isn’t a book heavy on plot or even character; it’s about feelings, moods, movements and journeys. But it’s so evocative, so fleeting and ephemeral, that it’s like trying to pin clouds to paper.

In fact, Galgut describes a journey as “a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made” — but he could have well been explaining what it is like to read this book.

You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again.

In a Strange Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Pieces of it originally appeared in the Paris Review.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer. This is yet another Kindle special (99p) that has been lurking on my device for several years. I bought it in December 2011, but have no memory as to what prompted me to make the purchase.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hanna Krall, holocaust, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall

Chasing-the-king-of-hearts

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

Last Christmas I treated myself to all the Peirene Press titles that I did not currently own. My plan was to work my way through them over the course of this year. Alas, with so many books — and other obligations — vying for my attention, it was only last week that I managed to pull one from the pile: Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts.

This book is not your usual Peirene fare in the sense that it’s a little too long to be classed as a novella (it certainly took me far longer than two hours to read it), but I’m not sure that really matters. The book is a tribute to one woman’s amazing ability to survive everything that World War Two throws at her, including the execution of various family members, life in the Warsaw Ghetto, several stints in jail, torture by a cruel Gestapo officer (was there any other kind?)  and  internment in Auschwitz. And that’s only the half of it.

A woman’s love for her husband

The story is framed around a love affair between a woman, Izolda Regensberg, and her husband, Shayek, the “King of Hearts” of the title, who is taken away by force to a concentration camp. Over the next few years, Izolda does everything in her power to be reunited with him — indeed, she becomes the “Queen of Chameleons”: she changes her name, her hair, her occupation and her religion. She finds new ways to make money — selling goods on the blackmarket and acting as a secret message courier — in order to fund her journey to find her beloved.

Her life is constantly in danger as she passes herself off as a blonde-haired Catholic — and for much of the time she gets away with it. But every now and then she doesn’t:

When the train stops at Radom the German takes her to the police station.
Evidently you look like a Jew, says the policeman.
She’s genuinely surprised: I look like a Jew? I’ve never heard that before.
Can you say your Hail Mary? the policeman asks.
Of course. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with the… […] Blessed art thou among women… Because she is addressing the Mother of God, who is full of grace, she goes slowly, making every word count, to show respect.
Listen to you, the policeman laughs out loud. What normal person says Hail Mary like that? Usually it’s hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee… You really are a Jew!

But despite this little “hiccup” she remains steely, determined and astonishingly resilient. Nothing ever seems to faze her: not even broken shoulders and a knocked out tooth. She simply dusts herself off and continues her quest.

And it is a quest in the truest sense of the word, for Izolda comes across so many challenges and obstacles and tests of courage, yet she never gives in. Not even the horrors of Auschwitz can dent her perseverance or enthusiasm. Indeed, she’s so self-assured she approaches Dr Mengele for a job!

Fast-paced adventure story

As you might imagine for a book that covers so much geographical territory —Vienna, Warsaw and countless other towns — the narrative has a rather fast pace. Sometimes events move so quickly it’s hard to keep up —  it’s a catalogue of train journeys, some taken on purpose, others by force  — and reads like a woman’s own adventure story.

The prose style is neat and clipped. It’s written in the third person but in the present tense, which lends the story a sense of immediacy, and it brims with tension throughout. It’s not sensational in the Hollywood sense, but it is a magnificent story told with exceptional restraint. Despite being set during the Holocaust, there’s not a shred of sentimentality or pity in it.

And yet it’s never quite clear whether Izolda’s love is truly reciprocated, and her inner life, along with Shayek himself, is frustratingly unknowable because she’s so stoic and self-contained. But on the whole Chasing the King of Hearts is the kind of story that makes you marvel at humankind’s ability to adapt and survive in the face of so much adversity. It’s also the kind of story that I know will remain with me for a long time to come…

Author, Biblioasis, Book review, Fiction, Kathy Page, Publisher, short stories

‘Paradise & Elsewhere’ by Kathy Page

Paradise-and-elsewhere

Fiction – Kindle edition; Biblioasis; 158 pages; 2014.

Kathy Page’s extraordinary short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere has been long listed for this year’s Giller Prize. I say “extraordinary” because it’s the best word I could come up with to describe the book in its entirety. Each of the 14 stories within it are magical little portholes into other worlds, or, as the author puts it herself (in the Acknowledgements), “explorations into the hinterland between realism and myth”.

Indeed, reading many of these stories is a slightly dislocating experience. That’s because the places in which Page sets them feel real and recognisable — deserts, rural communities, suburbia, to name but a few — and yet somewhere at the mid-way point of each story, or near the end, she drops in a little detail that makes you realise these are not places you’ve ever been — or are likely to want to visit.

Some are set now, others in the future after an unexplained and presumably catastrophic event has changed civilisation in subtle but oh-so important ways.

Dark tales

There’s definitely an undercurrent of menace in many of these tales. People are never to be taken on face value, never to be trusted, because underneath they’ve all got their own private, self-interested agendas. Many characters are manipulative, dark and dangerous. Others are weak and naive — and are always taken advantage of.

This all adds up to some pretty edgy and deeply disturbing short stories, I must say, but Page reigns it in beautifully. There’s no pyrotechnics or melodrama, although the climax of each story is often surprising or unexpected. The writing is restrained throughout; there’s almost a journalistic quality to it and I was often reminded of the very best kind of travel reportage that not only transports you to foreign climes but describes the culture, the food, the people and tries to put it into context.

Some tales also read as fables — not dull, overly simplistic, fables, but ones with dark moral messages at the core reminiscent of British writer Magnus Mills.

Trouble in paradise

As an example, one of the early stories in the collection (and possibly my favourite), Of Paradise, explores what it is to accept new people into our communities. It is set in an oasis — the paradise of the title — in the middle of the desert where a relatively peaceful community has been living in seclusion for a very long time. One day a distressed person arrives, “dragging itself towards us across sand and rock”, and she is given water, food and shelter. While the community nurses “the traveller” to good health they fall a little bit in love with her, but when she is fully recovered opinion is divided about what to do with her:

I said that she must be taught our language. Then she could decide whether she would stay or not, and if so she would have to be told our methods of cultivation and given a home and responsibilities. Others agreed that she should learn how to speak to us, but only so that we could find out where she had come from and send her back to it; there were limits to hospitality. However well-taught and well-loved she was, these people said, she would always feel slightly apart from us who had always been here.

The community becomes increasingly afraid of the stranger in their midst and want to cast her out, not least because they feel she is a burden they can no longer support.

The traveller, I pointed out, might well be a gift as much as a responsibility. She might have some skill we did not practise, she might have reached some understanding we were still groping for. Perhaps we should accept the unfamiliar and learn from it?

I won’t elaborate on what happens to the “foreigner” — you’ll have to read the story yourself to find out — but I couldn’t help thinking of all the issues associated with immigration (both legal and illegal) and border controls that fill our newspapers and TV screens on a daily basis.  And perhaps that’s the greatest strength of Paradise & Elsewhere: Page takes seemingly familiar issues, places and people but alters them ever so slightly so that they’re recognisable without being completely “other”.

As a whole, the book is a wonderful exploration of an old topic — what it is to be an outsider — but it is done in such an original and refreshing way I couldn’t help but be impressed by it. I can be a bit so-so about short story collections, but I loved this one, not least because each tale gave me something to mull over and “chew”. For that reason it’s not one to race through, but one to saviour and enjoy.

Finally, I can’t finish this review without pointing out that I read the Kindle edition of this book and was rather annoyed to find the table of contents located at the rear . I didn’t even know it was there until I got to the end of the book, by which time I had no need to use the table. This might be something to bear in mind if you purchase the Kindle edition.

Australia, Author, Book review, Finch Publishing, Lisa Nops, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka, travel, UAE

‘My Life in a Pea Soup’ by Lisa Nops

My-life-in-a-pea-soup

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Finch Publishing; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I have to confess that true stories about motherhood and raising children aren’t normally my cup of tea, so it may come as some surprise that I chose to read and review Lisa Nops’ My Life in a Pea Soup when the publisher pitched it to me. However, I quite like memoirs written by ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and I also like tales about expats, and this book ticked both those boxes.

Planned parenthood

The memoir is written by Lisa Nops, an Australian teacher who married Michael, an English civil engineer, in 1989. Michael’s job often involved working in exotic locations, so at various times the couple have lived in Australia, New Zealand, France, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.

When they decided to start a family Lisa was unable to fall pregnant, so four rounds of IVF treatment ensued, with no success. Then, in November 1997, she fell pregnant naturally and their daughter, Sally, was born in 1998.

Initially, Sally appeared to be a normal baby, albeit with an extremely quiet disposition, “inclined to sleep over and above doing anything else, not just at night but during the day as well”. But as time progressed Sally failed to meet ordinary developmental milestones, such as crawling, walking and speaking, was plagued by various illnesses, including ear infections, was prone to “staring intensely at objects and shadows” and began to flap her hands uncontrollably when excited.

When she was three, she was diagnosed with an unknown “neurological problem” that would require intensive speech, language and occupational therapy. There was the very real possibility that she would never learn to speak in sentences. Eventually she was diagnosed as autistic.

Search for a diagnosis

The book charts Lisa’s struggle to find out what was wrong with Sally, a journey that spanned several years — and continents. It was complicated by two factors: Lisa’s inability to fully accept that Sally’s slow development was anything other than her just being slow, and the family’s constant moving from one country to another.

Even when Lisa moved back to her home town of Canberra, Australia, to give Sally a better chance of medical care, things weren’t always straightforward. It certainly didn’t help that Michael remained behind in Sri Lanka to continue working, leaving Lisa to grapple with raising a child with special needs alone.

Once a proper diagnosis was made, it allowed the couple to become more focused on getting the right care and attention for Sally. But this was only half the battle. It did not alter the fact that they were “stuck” in a life they had never planned when they had decided to become parents. Lisa uses the analogy of planning a dream trip to Italy only to end up in Holland by accident:

It’s a different county to the one they had expected, where the countryside is flat and the people speak with guttural inflections. For a while they resent their holiday there; it wasn’t what they had planned and everyone in Italy is having a great time. But, little by little, day by day, they start to enjoy the country’s level plains, the windmills and tulips. They surprise themselves by eventually liking this holiday.

I do not have children, but what this book confirmed to me is the very real challenge that parents of autistic children face on a day to day basis. It’s not a grim read — indeed, there are many chinks of light in it, especially when Lisa and Michael discover (and then adopt) a program called Son-Rise, which helps Sally enormously.

It’s written in a straightforward style, free of sentiment and self-pity, and I suspect readers with autistic children, friends or relatives will learn a lot from it.

Nops also has a lovely way of describing life as an expat, especially the excitement (and apprehension) of moving to a new country, discovering new cultures and adjusting to their customs, and she skilfully interleaves this detail into her story with a lightness of touch. I liked the way the author explores this sense of “otherness”, not only as an expat but as a parent of a child with special needs.

My Life in a Pea Soup won the Finch Memoir Prize in 2012.

 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Maryam Sachs, Publisher, Quartet Books, Setting

‘The Passenger’ by Maryam Sachs

The-Passenger

Fiction – paperback; Quartet; 112 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Gael Schmidt-Cleach. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

There are two kinds of people who catch taxis: those that want to travel in peace and quiet, and those that like to pass time by conversing with the driver. In Maryam Sachs’ The Passenger, an unnamed woman falls into the latter camp. When she climbs into a taxi outside Charles de Gaulle airport to make the short trip home, she goes on a physical and figurative journey like no other — and all because she begins speaking to the driver.

A taxi ride

The story is narrated by an East German émigré, who is married with two adult children and lives in a Parisian apartment. She is returning from a holiday in Greece and tonight it is her son’s 21st birthday party.

The taxi ride shouldn’t take longer than an hour but it invariably gets caught up in traffic and slows to a crawl. As she watches the all-too familiar scenery passing by and smells the Parisian pollution coming in through the open window, her mind drifts to the past, from her birth in West Germany to her father’s death when she was just a child, from her upbringing in her mother’s native East Germany to a thwarted love affair at university which resulted in an abortion — and all this by page 16.

When she begins talking to the driver, she discovers he is Romanian and immediately the two begin to bond over their shared experiences as foreigners in France.

He smiles for the first time and our eyes meet in the rear-view mirror. It’s like an invisible thread has just appeared between us.

Over the course of the journey, which lasts a little shy of 90 minutes, the pair share stories and experiences from their lives. It is an intimate and important trip, one in which the road “we have travelled is more than just the distance between the airport and my house. No one’s ever taken me so far”.

Intimate portrait of a woman

This beautiful and beguiling novella unfolds ever-so gently, drawing you in to the thoughts and memories of the narrator as she unearths her life, learning about herself and her driver at the same time.

While much of what she recalls is sad — there’s an aching sense of loss throughout the narrative, of having to give up things or forget thing to move onwards — it has a strange meditative quality that left me feeling relaxed and at ease, almost as if I had plunged into a bubble-bath for a long, hot soak.

In fact, her reflection towards the end of the trip, pretty much sums up how I felt about the book:

We’re both silent, both lost in thought. We’re not paying attention to the sounds of the city any more. I feel so comfortable, at peace. It’s been a long time since I’ve been aware of the silence like this. It’s a silence full of meaning, a silence that knows it’s accomplished its mission. It fills me completely, I can almost feel it. I have no desire to break it.

Wise and wonderful

The Passenger is not only perfectly paced, it is filled with gorgeous observations and home truths written by an author with a perceptive eye.

This eloquent tale about an unlikely friendship, about opening ourselves up to new experiences and not being afraid to share our stories with strangers, is both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

But its real strength lies in the way it so wisely and astutely reveals how we can never leave the places that shaped us, nor forget those who have played such important roles in our lives. Who knew a taxi journey could be so enlightening?

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michelle de Krester, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka

‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser

Questions-of-travel

Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 528 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If books won prizes for ambition alone, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel should win every gong going. This is a “widescreen” novel that explores the interconnectedness of our lives brought about by the advent of the internet, cheap travel and globalisation.

Dual narrative

The book spans 40 years and follows two characters — Australian Laura Fraser and Sri Lankan Ravi Mendis — whose tales are divided into two separate narrative threads. These two characters are poles apart, not least the ways in which they travel the globe.

Laura is a drifter, who has the freedom to travel across the world wherever her Australian passport might take her; Ravi is forced to flee Sri Lanka under difficult circumstances and seeks political asylum in Australia, never knowing whether he will be shipped back home against his will.

The pair eventually meet, but that’s not really the climax, nor purpose, of the story, which covers  many issues and topics associated with “travel”, including the way in which the development of the internet and cheap personal computers made the world smaller. Indeed, following these character’s lives is a journey in itself.

Laura, who uses an inheritance to travel around the world, leads the kind of life to which many of us might aspire. But even though she lives in London for several years, there are pitfalls to never putting roots down in one place — she doesn’t have a proper career, nor a settled relationship. But when she returns to Sydney and begins working for a travel guide company (a thinly disguised version of Lonely Planet), there is no miracle “cure” for her dislocation.

By contrast, Ravi, an academic who develops one of the first websites and understands the potential of the internet, has no choice but to leave his homeland following the brutal murder of his wife and young son. When he seeks political asylum in Australia there is the constant fear that he will be returned home, even though he would love to see other family members and continue his life before it was so viciously interrupted.

Thoughtful and intelligent

There’s no doubt that Questions of Travel is a thoughtful and intelligent novel, the type of novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring big issues — in fact, on more than one occasion it reminded me very much of last year’s Giller Prize-winning novel, 419, by Will Ferguson, which was equally ambitious in scope and outlook.

But this is also one of those rare books that is all about the detail — incredible detail. Indeed, there’s so much detail in this book, it requires a lot of concentration and attention from the reader. It is not an effortless read. It is not a book to rush through.

Because of this it took a long time for me to get “into” the story and, just occasionally, I found it dragged in places. This may be partly to do with the author’s prose style, which felt convoluted and “showy”, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed her descriptions, particularly of objects and places, which were evocative and often quite beautiful. Likewise, her characters are wonderful — quirky, original, authentic and memorable.

But it is the little revelations, scattered throughout the narrative, that makes the book such an entertaining and often surprising read. And the ending, which almost made me fall off my chair with the shock of it, is one of the most powerful and totally unexpected conclusions I’ve ever read in contemporary fiction. Weeks later I’m still thinking about it — just as I am also thinking about all the many issues thrown up by this extraordinary, eloquent and deeply moving novel.

Australia, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Martin Boyd, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Cardboard Crown’ by Martin Boyd

Cardboard-crown

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Classics; 288 pages; 2012.

Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown is the first part of a quartet exploring the secret history of an  upper-class Anglo-Australian family.

It’s an amazingly vivid and absorbing saga supposedly based on Boyd’s own family —  in his author’s note he claims the plot is factual, but “the characters and certain episodes are fictitious”.

Unsurprisingly, for a book that is so gripping and entertaining, it became a bestseller in the UK when it was first published in 1952. But Australian audiences didn’t agree. It wasn’t until it was reprinted almost 20 years later, in 1971, that it garnered critical acclaim in Boyd’s homeland. Now it has been reissued again, this time by Text Classics, for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy.

A story set in England and Australia

The story revolves around the independently wealthy Alice Verso, whose marriage to Austin Langton forges a dynasty that spans two continents. But at the heart of this alliance lies a shocking secret kept hidden from the world for three generations.

The secret is discovered by Alice’s grandson, Guy Langton, some 50 years after her death. Guy, who narrates the novel, finds her diaries in the Melbourne home he has inherited. By going through the diaries and talking to his uncle and a cousin about the family’s history and mythology, he is able to piece together his grandmother’s amazingly privileged if somewhat tragic life.

The tale he tells swings between England and Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where the Langton family leads two very different lives depending on which country they happen to be living in.

A rootless existence

In Australia, the Langtons are well regarded and socially pre-eminent with connections in all the right places, and their newly built home, in native bushland 30 miles outside of Melbourne, becomes a home away from home for a vast array of family and friends.  In England, they have less social standing, but life is gentler and more cultured, and their surroundings at Waterpark, the traditional family home, are far more pleasant with grand gardens and plenty of land upon which to go hunting. England also has the benefit of being much closer to continental Europe, specifically France and Italy, where the family can experience high culture, art and travel. (I should point out that quite a bit of this novel is set in Rome.)

But despite having the good fortune to be able to reside on either side of the world as and when they feel like it, there is a downside to this inability to put down permanent roots. Alice, for instance, never feels truly at home in either country and a restlessness develops that can not be cast aside. This is how Guy describes the dilemma:

A Cornishman once told me that when he was a boy he caught a seagull, and clipped its wing so that it could not fly away. After a while the feathers grew and he forgot to clip them again. It flew back to its companions who killed it. In its captivity it had acquired some human taint which they sensed was hostile. My family were captive seagulls, both at Waterpark, and even more, as time went on, in Australia.

A story about love, money and class

I will admit that it took me a little time to get into this story. I think that’s largely because it starts off in a kind of meta-fiction type of way, with Guy Langton recalling a conversation in which he was encouraged to write his grandmother’s story. And following on from this, there’s a lot of ground-setting to be done and what appears to be a complicated cast list to get your head around. But once I got into the nub of the story — Alice’s marriage to Austen — things really took off and I found myself completely hooked on this story about love and money and class on two sides of the world.

It’s quite witty in places and terribly sad in others. Indeed, the narrative is full of light and shade, a reflection, perhaps, of the two very different countries in which the book is set.

But what I liked and appreciated most was the way in which Boyd portrays Alice as a woman before her time — a matriarch with plenty of money who did not flaunt her riches but used her wealth to keep family and friends in comfortable circumstances. And while she seemed to always put others before herself, she was not afraid to do her own thing and to forge her own path even if that meant upsetting social conventions of the time.

As an exploration of Melbourne’s colonial past and Australia’s early history, The Cardboard Crown is a fascinating read. But what this book really excels at is capturing that terrible sense of dislocation when you’re never quite sure which country to call home.

Note that the three other books in the Langton Quartet are A Difficult Young Man, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing. All but the latter have been republished by Text Classics. Do visit the publisher’s website for ordering information.

To read about the author’s extraordinary life (and family) check out the entry on Wikipedia.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Paul Bowles, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles

Up-above-the-world

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 223 pages; 2009.

Paul Bowles, an American-born writer and composer, is probably best known for his 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky (which I’ve not read). He penned Up Above the World, his fourth (and last) novel, some 17 years later. I picked it up by chance while browsing in the library last week and am so pleased I did.

A masterpiece of suspense writing

This novel is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married couple who are taken advantage of while travelling through Central America. It’s the mid 1960s and Dr Taylor Slade and his much younger second wife, Day, regard themselves as travellers, not tourists. But for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming.

Within about 15 pages I’d decided these people, regardless of wealth and circumstance, probably shouldn’t leave their own home — their trusting nature would only lead them into trouble.

It all begins with one simple act of kindness. Day loans $10 to Mrs Rainmantle, a Canadian passenger on the cruise ship, who has forgotten her line of credit. When Dr Slade finds out about the loan he is mildly horrified — he thinks the “big woman with pink cheeks” is “ridiculous” and dubs her “Mrs Crazy” behind her back. It’s not that he distrusts her, he just finds her tiresome and a little bit parasitic.

No escape

But later, when the Slades finish their voyage at Puerto Farol — before catching a train further inland — they find Mrs Rainmantle has checked into the same hotel. It seems there is no escaping this rather large, jolly woman, who now wants to borrow some of Day’s clothes. That’s because the British consul won’t let her take her luggage from the ship until she pays an outstanding bar bill.

But once the Slades do, eventually, escape the clutches of Mrs Rainmantle, their holiday fails to improve: if anything it gets worse.

When Dr Slade falls ill, Day is grateful for the help she receives from a handsome young expatriate American man, Grove Soto, and his teenage Cuban mistress, whom she has befriended. But all is not as it seems.

There are aspects to Grove’s character that suggest he is not a man to be trusted, but Day doesn’t seem to have an ounce of paranoia in her body. It takes her an awful long time to realise Grove’s nefarious ways, and even then she wonders if maybe she’s just imagining it.

A slow build up of tension

What I really loved about this story is the way that Bowles builds up the suspense slowly but surely, so that by the time you realise what he’s doing it’s too late to back out and put the book down — you have to keep ploughing on regardless because you simply have to know what happens to these poor unsuspecting people. And yet, when he ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable level, it never seems false or showy. There was never a moment when I thought it would be impossible to fool two travellers in this way — in other words, despite the horror of the story, it is entirely plausible, which only makes it more terrifying.

And while his prose style might be economical this doesn’t mean he leaves out important detail. In one particular scene Day hears a small child in another room, but Grove insists that it could be a parrot — immediately the reader isn’t quite sure what to believe. This sense of self-doubt is everywhere in the book and it creates a growing feeling of unease in the reader. The line between truth and paranoia is a very thin one indeed.

It’s only at the very end, when events are explained and you discover the true nature of Grove’s scheming ways, that you come to understand what the Slades have endured. It’s not pleasant, but then suspense novels aren’t supposed to be pleasant; they’re designed to be creepy and unnerving. And John Bowles’ Up Above the World is one of the creepiest and most unnerving novels I’ve ever encountered. More please.

Author, Book review, Joe Bennett, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, travel, UAE

‘Hello Dubai: Skiing, Sand and Shopping in the World’s Weirdest City’ by Joe Bennett

Hello-Dubai

Non-fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 272 pages; 2011.

The first time I went to Dubai, on a day trip from neighbouring Abu Dhabi where I was staying in 2009, I couldn’t get over the scale of the place. It was like one giant construction site, with all manner of skyscrapers and shopping malls and apartment blocks being built. And when you went to any of the hotels or shops, there was a real feel of big money and glitz and glamour to the place.

But Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has a dark underside — or should that be underclass? — of mainly emigrant workers, largely from India and the Phillipines, which the glossy tourist brochures, and the ruling Arab elite, would rather you didn’t know about.

Joe Bennett, who is a professional travel writer, comes to grips with both sides of Dubai in this intriguing, and very witty, book based on his time living in the city. His highly readable account explains how Dubai went from being a quiet Arabian port into a hub of global trade and finance in just a matter of decades.

Bennett suggests that Dubai is essentially a British creation. That’s because Dubai is a sheikdom, ruled by the “royal” Al Maktoum family, who were never elected into power, they simply “assumed” it with the backing of the British, who, for all kinds of economic reasons, did not wish the UAE to be a democracy.

Dubai’s wealth initially lay in oil, but by concentrating on tourism, trade, real estate and financial services, the Al Maktoums have turned it into a Western-style economy. This has meant relaxing many of their rules to attract foreigners and foreign businesses to their shores.

For example, up until 2006, the only way a foreigner could live in Dubai was on a limited three-year visa system tied to employment. They could not buy property, because it was all owned by the ruling sheikh and Emiratis. That’s now changed, and expats can purchase their own homes — although judging by the examples Bennett quotes here, it’s not exactly straightforward, nor cheap — but they cannot obtain citizenship. This means they can be told to leave the country at any time, which is quite a convenient system for those in charge.

But Bennett doesn’t just look at what makes Dubai tick, he goes out into the other emirates (except the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi) to compare them, and much of what he finds is in stark contrast to the wealth and opportunism that Dubai affords.

He meets a variety of people, from expat South Africans living in mansion-like villas equipped with swimming pools and driving expensive four-wheel drives, to hard-working Filipino maids, who are treated like second-class citizens by their employers. He hangs out with foreign businessmen, the nouvea rich, who are making big bucks and plays cricket with Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan labourers on their day off.

And while he has a perceptive eye and notices the unobtrusive underclass and the lewd, often culturally insensitive, behaviour of the richer expats, Bennett’s book is far from heavy or judgmental. It features some delicious comic moments, such as when he accidentally finds himself caught in no man’s land between the UAE and Oman, or when he falls over in the shower, tears the curtain from the wall and knocks himself out on the toilet seat.

This is a terrific book, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. If you’re thinking of visiting Dubai, or even if you’re not, this is a fun, but intelligent, read about a city that is truly unique.