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Monday, 7 August 2017

The Idea of Perfection - Kate Grenville (1999)








Kate Grenville is a well-known and respected Australian author who has been publishing novels since 1985. Grenville hit significant cultural pay-dirt with her novel The Secret River (2005) that offered an engaging and visceral depiction of early European settlement in New South Wales. The Idea of Perfection was also successful, winning Grenville the Orange Prize in 2001, impressing the judges with its eccentric Australian setting and portrayal of the development of an awkward love affair between two damaged individuals. Previously I read The Secret River as part of the library’s book club. I was impressed and the novel was also generally well received by the members. The Idea of Perfection, however, was a major disappointment and polarized my book club members into two camps, those who absolutely loved it and those who loathed the very pages the words were printed on.

The Idea of Perfection is set in the fictional New South Wales town of Karakarook, which is the kind of Australian small town that writers love to portray; the town itself is like a lovable character and the locals are eccentric and quite one-eyed in their opinions. Into this environment comes Harley Savage, a heritage expert hired to put the town on the cultural map in an attempt to turn the financial fortunes of the town around, and Douglas Cheeseman, a vertigo suffering engineer who is charged with replacing an old wooden bridge with a steel and concrete bridge. Although the two protagonists come from very different worlds they have in common a high degree of social awkwardness and family backgrounds that left them with a sense of inadequacy.

The novel’s thematic focus is, not surprisingly, the concept of perfection, or more precisely that perfection is inherently subjective or even an illusory notion. Municipal powers view the town’s old wooden bridge as both an unsafe eyesore and vastly inferior to a modern steel and concrete bridge, yet the wooden bridge stands as an example of the brilliant craftsmanship of another era and is ‘perfect’ in its own way. Both Douglas and Harley view themselves as wholly imperfect, yet the reality is that they are perfect for each other. The theme of perfection is explored in a far more interesting way via two of the novel’s minor characters, Felicity Porcelline and Alfred Chang. Felicity is the bank manager’s wife and she is obsessed with the eradication of imperfection, down the extent of only allowing herself a couple of smiles a day lest she create unwanted wrinkles on her pretty face. Her affair with Alfred, the town’s Chinese butcher, is one of the novel’s few highlights and in fact I found myself wishing that they were the main characters, rather than the predominately one dimensional characters of Douglas and Harley.

As with Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (2015), Grenville’s novel suffers from stylistic heavy-handedness. The absolute awkwardness of Harley or Douglas is emphasized at every opportunity, repeated again and again to an intolerably irritating degree. Each time either of these two characters appeared I found myself cringing and desiring the company of Felicity and Alfred instead. Any humour or exploration of human psychology was hampered by the overwhelming irritation generated by Grenville’s self-conscious prose style. Grenville is a fine enough writer with a long and successful career behind her, but unfortunately and perhaps ironically The Idea of Perfection, to my subjective judgement at least, is far from perfect. Any critical assessment of literature involves both subjective and objective elements and prior to the book club meetings to discuss the novel I wondered whether it was one of those books that just wasn’t for me, however many of the members had the same reaction, but some also enjoyed both the characters and what the novel had to say thematically. Sometimes a novel has value precisely because it is divisive; such novels can get people thinking deeply about the nature of narrative, and that in itself is valuable, even if the novel is, in the end, found wanting.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Children of Time - Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)








How do you write a great science fiction novel that both captures the quality and scope of the various ‘golden ages’ of science fiction and yet make it also modern and innovative? It’s a tricky balancing act but with Children of Time Adrian Tchaikovsky certainly has achieved that feat. For his efforts Tchaikovsky won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2016, which is certainly apt as the novel most certainly echos Clarke’s ability to tackle profound themes with originality and verve. I usually try to avoid any obvious spoilers in my reviews, but just a warning here because to discuss this novel properly I will need to reveal a few key things, however in my defense the main reveal is quite obvious within the first few chapters of the novel, rather than being, for example, a plot twist near the end.

The narrative centres around Kern’s World, a name given unofficially by Doctor Avrana Kern, the leader of a project to terraform the planet and introduce monkeys that will be uplifted by a nano virus and therefore spread life throughout the galaxy on humanity’s terms. Of course things don’t go to plan because humanity is still a flawed proposition even in the far-flung future in which the solar system is colonized and the stars are accessible via sophisticated and powerful technology. Tchaikovsky uses alternating chapters to tell the story of what happens when the human civilization that creates Kern’s World is superseded by a lesser human civilization and the nano virus that was meant to super-evolve the monkeys goes to work on spiders instead. As the spiders continually evolve the human threat from space becomes more pressing, which increases the narrative tension exponentially. As far as spoilers go, that’s it, but fortunately that is only the beginning of this sublime science fiction novel, one of the very best I’ve read for years.

Children of Time
is a near flawless novel that draws you into its narrative arc absolutely. As the novel progressed I began to think that some of the human characters were not very well written, but then I realised that Tchaikovsky had written the spider characters so brilliantly that they actually outshone the human ones. Also Tchaikovsky totally manipulates the reader into siding with the spiders; I become extremely emotionally attached to them and wanted them to survive and prosper. I didn’t care at all about the fate of the humans, who, of course, are far more monstrous than the metre long spiders themselves. Tchaikovsky’s skills also extend to the creation of a fully realised evolutionary world that vibrates with fascinating detail and plausible outcomes. I found Kern’s World to be so compelling that sometimes the shift to the human oriented chapters was slightly jarring, however these chapters were also almost uniformly excellent, filled with old school science fiction tropes made anew. Both narrative streams also share a complex moral landscape, with the humans wrestling with humanity’s flawed past, the present demands of survival and the disorienting effects of human life suspension. The spiders struggle for dominance on their planet and the moral ambiguities that arise when instinct, culture and intellectual development collide.

Throughout the novel Tchaikovsky continually made me wonder just how it would end, but it was never obvious just what would happen. Endings are often difficult for authors, but Tchaikovsky succeeded in ramping up the excitement and the mystery of the novel’s endgame. All I’ll say is that I was dazzled at just how well he pulled it off. I do not want to give anything more away and spoil it for all the science fiction freaks out there. Children of Time will please all fans of speculative fiction and it would also be a great novel for novices to begin their relationship with the genre, such is its brilliance. I sincerely hope that Tchaikovsky writes at least one sequel to Children of Time and in the meantime I may even try one of the novels from his epic fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt (2008 - 2014).

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Atomic Weight of Love - Elizabeth J Church (2016)








The Atomic Weight of Love is a fascinating novel, not so much because of its story or characters, although they are both rendered in a more than adequate fashion, but because it is a great example of how a novel does not necessarily need to be a work of literary genius to be affecting or even significant. Church’s own life story greatly influenced the content of this novel, having been born in Los Alamos to a father directly involved in the Manhattan Project and subsequent nuclear research after the end of WWII. However the novel is not Church’s life story; the main protagonist, Meridian Wallace, is an amalgam of many women she knew who lived in the Los Alamos community who put their careers and lives on hold to support their husbands work. Thematically the novel concerns itself with feminism with its portrayal of female subjugation in the face of patriarchal expectation and societal tradition. 

The Atomic Weight of Love, after a brief exposition of Meridian’s childhood, begins in earnest in 1941 at the University of Chicago where Meridian is studying ornithology. Meridian is a brilliant young student with a promising career ahead of her, however she meets and falls in love with Alden Whetstone, a physics professor twenty years her senior, whom she subsequently marries. Alden soon becomes involved with the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. When the war ends Meridian is faced with the choice of being with her husband in Los Alamos or finishing her studies in Chicago. She agrees to postpone her studies for a year, effectively sealing her fate as just another unfulfilled housewife in Los Alamos. Such a premise could easily result in a novel rife with cliche, one dimensional characterizations and sentimentality, however Church has succeeded in producing a subtle representation of the emergence of the post war wave of feminism. Alden is predominantly portrayed not as an unrelenting misogynist (although he does have his moments), but as very much a product of his times, with all the gender role playing baggage that comes with it. Meridian, despite being an intelligent and capable women, becomes trapped and stupefied by her unstimulating house-wife existence.

Over a number of decades Meridian makes friends and tries to keep herself busy, but most significantly she ventures into the semi-arid wilderness around Los Alamos to study a group of crows. Her observations of crow behavior and her thoughts and realizations about her own life often intermingle, sometimes resulting in some perhaps too obvious analogies. It is during one of her forays into the wilderness that she meets a man called Clay, a man who is twenty years younger than her. Clay is also a Vietnam veteran and budding geologist. Clay is an obvious narrative device to offer Meridian a way out of her unfulfilled life and in some ways he is a cliched character, however as the novel progresses and their relationship becomes more complex Clay becomes the perfect means to reveal the dysfunctional cracks in the social mores that trapped Meridian in the first place.

The Atomic Weight of Love is set during great periods of upheaval and change, yet Church, on the whole, chooses not to allow the events and issues of the time period to dominate. World War Two, the moral questions surrounding atomic warfare, the Vietnam war, civil rights, the counterculture (although Clay is a hippy, as explored in some memorable scenes) and feminism itself, are mainly kept in the background or used as a means to give personal events or points of view context. Church has been criticized for only superficially exploring these issues, marking this apparent flaw as a wasted opportunity. There is certainly some validity to this criticism, however if these issues were in the narrative foreground then The Atomic Weight of Love would be a completely different novel and lose its prime thematic focus: as a very personal portrayal of the issues that led to the rise of post war feminism. Church should be lauded for being so subtle in her approach and not just writing another historical novel about America and the world in the mid twentieth century. Personally I very much appreciate that Church has written a narrative that resulted in me being interested in the life and welfare of its principle protagonist despite it being a novel I would not normally want to read if it were not for my book club duties.

During the meetings for the novel I asked the predominately (older) female attendees if they felt empathy for Meridian, and also if they considered the novel to be important in terms of reminding younger readers of why there was a need for feminism in the first place. Curiously many had little sympathy for Meridian, pointing out that she should have been stronger willed. No one considered the novel to be important, although some believed the novel to be worth reading and Meridian to be a fair representation of a woman living during that era and circumstance. I must say that I was surprised by some of the reactions to the novel, particularly from female members whom I thought would be much more sympathetic to Meridian’s plight. All three meetings were characterized by polarized opinions regarding the novel’s quality and subject matter, but particularly regarding Meridian’s life choices and attitudes. To my mind such polarization of opinion, healthy debate and the obvious qualities of the novel suggest that The Atomic Weight of Love can be considered a successful novel; but is it important in the context of the ongoing story of feminism? Perhaps it is at least an indicator that a feminist text does not need to written by Camille Paglia, Germaine Greer or Clementine Ford to be worthwhile; that popular literary fiction can be just as successful in conveying important themes and sparking debate as its more ‘serious’ literary counterparts.

Monday, 22 May 2017

An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)








Twelve years ago the very first book read for the Subiaco Library Book Club was Kazuo Ishiguro’s then recent novel Never Let Me Go (2005). I recall that most of the attendees agreed that it is an excellent novel; a consensus that was similarly reached with this novel. An Artist of the Floating World is Ishiguro’s second novel and was inspired by Marcel Proust’s Modernist classic In Search of Lost Time (1913). Appropriately the novel features the unreliable recollections of artist Masuji Ono, who is struggling to come to terms with life in post war Japan. Ono’s memories and musings provide the basis for the novel’s thematic centre, which focuses on both the inherent subjectivity of perception and the pressures that society and culture bring to bear on the individual, particularly during times of great upheaval.

Throughout the novel we learn, through numerous flashbacks, that Masuji Ono enjoyed a career as a fairly prominent artist during the decades leading up to the Second World War. The beginning of novel, set in 1948, finds him retired and pondering both his life and the state of Japan as the country begins to recover from bitter defeat. The novel is beautifully written, with spare, almost poetic prose that is always hinting at Ono’s subconscious stirrings. Clues of a barely buried past come early in the novel when Ono’s grandchild, the precocious Ichiro, asks Ono where his paintings are and Ono swiftly indicates that they are stored away. Ono acts as a subtle personification of Japan itself, wavering between denial about the past and full awareness of the actions and decisions that ultimately led the country to ruin. Ishiguro establishes and then maintains a subtle tension throughout the narrative by not fully revealing Ono’s exact role in the country’s imperialist past until the last third of the novel.

An Artist of the Floating World
is a compelling novel despite containing little in the way of drama. Instead the novel is deeply psychological and highly symbolic. Ono is, by his very nature, an unreliable narrator, and often his perception of both the past and the present is called into question. Ono’s plight is summed up beautifully during a scene in which he is sitting with his daughters on his back porch and one daughter comments that Ono should leave the garden alone, that he had pruned some trees too harshly and had ruined the symmetry of the garden. Ono can’t see her perspective at all and totally disagrees with his daughter. This brief interaction sums up the whole thematic thrust of the novel, but due to Ishiguro’s subtle style the point is never laboured. Even the repeated scenes of Ono sitting in his favourite pre-war bar, somehow still standing among the bombed-out ruins, are poignant rather than obvious.

Aside from Ishiguro’s brilliant writing style, An Artist of the Floating World works so well because Ono is such a sympathetic character.  At the end of the novel five years has passed since the end of the war and Japan has undergone significant changes. These changes are shown through Ono’s point of view, an old man pondering both the past and the future and wondering if the young people he sees around him as he sits on a bench that approximates a bar he once loved feel the same as he did when the will of the nation, and his world view, seemed so certain. It is a fittingly poignant conclusion to a novel of subtlety,  stylistic elegance and emotional complexity.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Wise Man’s Fear - The King Killer Chronicle: Day Two - Patrick Rothfuss (2011)





Last month I officially became one of the multitudes waiting for the third and final book of this great trilogy. After I finished The Wise Man’s Fear I investigated online if there was any indication that the third book, provisionally titled The Doors of Stone, would be published soon, however in a recent interview Rothfuss would not commit to a publication date. The Wise Man’s Fear, like the first book, The Name of the Wind (2007), is beautifully balanced between establishing the epic arc of the trilogy and also providing enough intrigue, action, character development and adventure to keep even the most demanding of readers happy. The Wise Man’s Fear delivers on every level, surpassing all limitations of so called genre fiction, with nearly one thousand pages featuring the flawed but brilliant Kvothe and his adventures in the Four Corners of Civilization.


The Wise Man’s Fear continues in the same vein as The Name of the Wind, with Kvothe recounting his tale to Chronicler and Bast (one of the magical Fae creatures) in his tavern somewhere in the backwoods of civilization. The novel is divided into long sections featuring different settings, with complex story arcs that are satisfying in their own right, but that also inform the overall narrative perfectly. After a short preamble in the tavern the novel begins in earnest, finding Kvothe still at The University; this time he becomes the student of the mentally cracked Master Elodin, one of the novel’s best characters. Acting both as a seamless continuation of the first novel and a gateway to further adventures, this section is supremely entertaining. After Kvothe faces up to Ambrose, his nemesis from the first novel, he is finally forced to leave The University on an extended sojourn. In classic fantasy fashion Kvothe journeys to other parts of the map provided in the front of the book. 


The section set at The University is so perfect that it is almost jarring to be introduced to an entirely new setting and collection of characters, however Rothfuss’ world-building skills are so finessed that the foreign climes of the city of Severen in a region called Vintas quickly becomes both familiar and filled with intriguing possibilities. Kvothe’s time in Vintas finds him in the service of the immensely rich Maer, where he foils assassination attempts, kindles a romance and is sent off to deal with bandits in the region know as The Eld. When Kvothe and his band of mercenaries, including an important character called Tempi, catch up with the bandits in The Eld the ensuing battle is both thrilling and disturbing. This section proves to be one of the best of the two books, in particular the time Kvothe spends with the alluring and magical Felurian in the Faerie realm, which is just brilliantly written. One of Ruthfuss’ great strengths is his ability to create slowly building tension and intrigue, while adding absorbing detail along the way, much of which hints at mysteries within the wider narrative, before finally revealing a climax or revelation. 


Apparently a critic complained that there is no real page-turning excitement to be found in the novel, but I disagree, whilst Rothfuss is certainly in no hurry to push the narrative along, he is always hinting that something significant will happen and when it does it is certainly worth the wait. Such criticisms also overlook the fact that the main narrative thrust of the novel is its subtle and intelligent world building; the novel is akin to a puzzle, with a multitude of clues scattered throughout the narrative, many of which are difficult to decipher. It is perhaps best to have someone you know also read both novels because discussing their mysteries is both enjoyable and most importantly integral to understanding the complex story arc. There is so much going on in both novels and so many unanswered questions that it is obvious why Rothfuss appears to be obsessed with taking the time to get the third novel just right, but I’m sure that it will be worth the wait. Apparently a HBO style series has been optioned, so hopefully Rothfuss does not end up in George E. Martin’s situation in which the series out-paces the novelized version.


Monday, 20 March 2017

The Good People - Hannah Kent (2016)








Hannah Kent is the author of the superb novel Burial Rites (2013), which is surely one of the great debut novels in Australian literary history. The quality and success of Burial Rites casts a long shadow over The Good People, a novel Kent was inspired to write when she was undertaking research for Burial Rites. The Good People is set in the 1820’s in a remote community in Ireland which is poised between the old ways and modernity. The novel’s characters are enmeshed in a belief system that attaches folkloric meanings to every day events, both the mundane and the tragic. The Good People is the name given to the fairy folk who live in the woods around certain trees and must be treated with respect (hence the euphemistic name, as they are anything but good). The novel’s principal protagonist is an elderly woman called Nance Roche (who based on a real historical character), who serves the villagers with her knowledge of herbal remedies, folk rituals and connection with the Good People.

The Good People is an extremely dark, atmospheric novel, which appropriately begins with the death of Nora Leahy’s husband at the crossroads near an area where suicides are buried. His demise follows the recent death of Nora’s daughter, Johanna, from a mystery illness, leaving Nora’s grandchild, Michael, whom is both paralyzed and cretinous, in her care. Nora hides Michael away from the townsfolk, rightly fearing their superstitious judgement. The Good People’s main thematic thrust is the friction between Paganism and Christianity during an era in which they very much overlap, creating a culture in which both have agency. A particular strength of the novel is that Kent does not convey authorial moral judgements, rather the reader is left to make up their own mind about the actions of characters such as Nance Roach, who is portrayed as merely acting in good faith according to ancient belief systems. Roach is a particularly fascinating and sympathetic character and the novel really comes alive when she is the principal focus. Young outsider Mary Clifford, hired by Nora to help with Michael, is also a crucial character, often acting as both the novel’s conscience and a voice of reason. Mary evokes a strong emotional resonance that creates overwhelming sympathy toward Michael and, to a lesser extent, Nora and her plight as Michael’s principal care-giver.

Kent’s portrayal of early nineteenth century Irish village life, with their earthy and colourful vernacular, the descriptions of their meager diet and most of all their complex folk rituals and superstitions, appear to be wholly authentic. Kent really is quite a gifted writer, evoking Irish rural life, with its mystical landscapes and harsh realities, with some beautifully lyrical writing. Unfortunately the pace of the narrative during the first half of the novel is at times sluggish and also somewhat repetitive, therefore I found it difficult to fully engage with the novel. The overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere is hard to take at times, particularly as a series of misfortunes befalls the villagers and the sense of foreboding becomes almost suffocating; also the cruel treatment of Michael by those who are meant to be his carers may be too much for some readers, particularly after such a slow beginning to the novel.

It is perhaps unfair to compare The Good People to Burial Rites, however there is no question that the novel suffers in comparison to Kent’s brilliant debut. The Good People is certainly no failure, Kent still writes beautifully and there are sections in the novel that are outstanding. The tone and moral landscape of the novel are also both handled deftly, as are the characterizations, in particular those of Nance Roach and Mary Clifford. Perhaps Kent is fated to be Australia’s foremost modern Gothic writer, with both her novels set in bleak but beautiful landscapes and featuring tragic tales of loss and suffering, if so then that is not such a bad thing.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Commonwealth - Ann Patchett (2016)








I’ve always been vaguely aware of Ann Patchett because of the popularity of Bel Canto (2001) with library patrons, but that remained the extent of my knowledge until now. Having just read Commonwealth for my library’s book club I researched her background and came away impressed. Patchett made Time Magazine’s list of most influential people in 2012 because she established her own independent book store in Nashville when every other book store had closed due to the impact of online book sellers such as Amazon. Superficially this doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, however Patchett took a stand against the erosion of book stores as cultural hubs that help promote a literate community, and that is particularly significant.

Anna Patchett has impeccable literary tastes, name-checking the likes of John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth as her main influences. Commonwealth does have some Updike infused into both its style and the ensemble cast of characters coping with the long term ramifications of two marriages coming to an end. Essentially Commonwealth is a minor saga involving blended families compromised by the upheaval of divorce. The novel begins in a dynamic fashion when Bert Cousins, a district attorney, gatecrashes a christening party at Fix and Beverly Keating’s house somewhere in the suburban wilds of Los Angeles. Bert’s presence at the party, the giant bottle of gin he brings and the kiss he plants on Beverley’s lips change both family’s futures; thus beginning an examination of the psychological fallout of divorce on both the children and the adults.

Patchett handles the plot arc mostly with aplomb and her writing style, which is clean and unhurried, takes the reader right into the emotional heart of the action. Despite these positives the novel's greatest undoing is that there are simply too many characters that crowd out the narrative, giving little room to explore any one character in any great depth. The closest the novel comes to a main protagonist is Franny, Fix and Beverley’s child, whom we first encounter as a baby at her christening. Franny is a likable but slightly banal character whose life has been made complex by her upbringing and the fallout from a significant tragic event that took place during one of the endless summer holidays the six children spend, mostly unsupervised, together. Commonwealth is aptly named as it doesn’t just explore the inevitable dysfunction that arises when step siblings are forced together, but also more importantly the mutual benefits of their shared circumstances, particularly when they are adults and need to lean on each-other to help them through their parents typically tragic endgames.

Franny is also at the heart of the novel’s other main thematic thrust: the moral implications of using actual real life events to furnish a novel of both characters and plot. Pratchett has some fun creating a drunken and washed out writer called Leon Posen. Posen appears around the middle of the novel and almost instantly makes a sometimes sluggish narrative much more interesting. Franny’s relationship with the aging writer brings out stories from her childhood and Posen adapts it for his comeback novel after being silent for over a decade. Through Posen Patchett explores the moralistic grey areas of novels, such as who owns a story once it is in the public domain? After all you can’t copy-write childhood memories; this is a problem that Franny’s brother Albie, one of the other stand-out characters, is faced with when he reads the novel and recognises his childhood, and in doing so discovers circumstances that he was unaware of simply because he was both the youngest and most reviled sibling.

Commonwealth left me with feelings of ambivalence because I found it to be tedious at times and bloated with characters that I found difficult to relate to, and also the last third of the novel left me cold, despite some well written scenes. Curiously however Commonwealth also impressed me just enough for me to say that I actually enjoyed it and entertain the notion that for certain readers who desire a novel to help while away the hot summer months it would be a very satisfying read indeed, and that’s not a bad thing at all.