Monday, 16 October 2017
A debut novel can be a fascinating thing, sometimes a brilliant start that a novelist may find difficult to live up to, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), or a false start that the novelist tries move on from, like Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City (1950). Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, falls somewhere in-between these two extremes. Gyasi was born in Ghana but was raised in America, predominately in Alabama, and decided on becoming a writer after being inspired by the Toni Morrison novel Song of Solomon (1977). Homegoing itself was inspired by Gyasi’s visit to Ghana in 2009 and took her six years of work before the novel was accepted for publication by Knopf. The novel is quite ambitious, featuring a multitude of characters, spanning two centuries and does not contain a principal protagonist, rather it is divided into discrete chapters that come with a host of new characters (too many to adequately discuss here; one book club member counted over forty characters). Gaysi is mostly equal to her ambition and the novel can be considered a successful attempt at presenting slavery in a new light.
Homegoing is written in a refreshingly simple, direct style, but is complex in terms of the generational flow of characters. It begins with a fire lit by a woman of the Asante tribe, Maame, who is enslaved by the rival Fante tribe. She escapes but leaves behind her daughter Effia. Maame then returns to her people and has another daughter called Esi. Via alternating chapters Gyasi tells the stories of the descendants of each daughter. Effia’s descendants remain in Africa in the Gold Coast area that eventually became Ghana, and Esi’s descendants become slaves in America. Each chapter begins with fresh protagonists, which can be challenging for some readers, but fortunately Gyasi has created a host of sympathetic characters with enough colour and nuance to draw the reader in and win them over. The early part of the novel contains fascinating portrayals of African tribal life, beliefs and customs. I was shocked to learn that the peoples of the Gold Coast region were already engaged in slavery before European powers began trading slaves themselves. Slaves would be taken from opposing tribes and some were then sold to slave traders from North Africa and the Middle East. It made me wonder just why this was completely unknown to me after all the history associated with slavery I’ve been exposed to throughout my life.
One of the strengths of the novel is that many of the characters display a moral complexity that transcends their position as either victim or oppressor. When Effia is given as an African bride to her English master, James Collins, we discover that Collins is not merely an evil white slaver, but can be kind and has enough moral awareness to suffer some degree of guilt and horror regarding the slave trade. The African side of Homegoing is the most engaging throughout much of the novel, with it’s range of well rounded characters and unfamiliar historical context. The American side takes in the oppression of black Americans after the abolition of slavery, through imprisonment and forced labour and the poverty and drug addiction of city life throughout the early part of the twentieth century. Despite such tragic themes the narrative becomes marginally more prosaic, causing the latter third of the novel to fall away slightly. It picks up again when Gyasi takes us into the modern era that features a character called Marjorie, who is perhaps based on her own life experiences. Within this modern cultural context the disparate narrative strands of the novel come together and offer a satisfying conclusion that could have easily descended into cliche at the hands of a lesser writer.
Homegoing addresses some important themes, such as slavery, family bonds, and the shaping forces of history on individuals. Although the novel encompasses a significant historical period, perhaps its greatest strength is that Gyasi makes only fleeting references to significant historical events, even the American Civil War only gets a few sentences. Instead the novel conveys its history via the characters personal stories, their struggles, triumphs and the weight of familial burdens that take generations to resolve. This gives the novel some emotional gravitas, which underlines the profound effects of the forces of history on the individual. Although Homegoing is not a literary masterpiece, it can be considered to be an important book. Slavery, much like the Holocaust, is a subject that is not going to go away and therefore it is important that we find new ways of addressing its legacy, particularly at this point in history in which right-wing hatred is on the rise once more. Coincidentally when I finished this novel I watched the movie Get Out (2017), which provided a fresh perspective on slavery within the unlikely context of a postmodern horror narrative. Humanity needs more stories like these to help us make sense of both our past and our present, which is why the novelistic form is so important culturally, rather than just being a means to entertain ourselves, something that we should not lose sight of in our hyper-distracted world.
Monday, 25 September 2017
When I first saw this rather large tome (1015 pages to be exact...) on the shelves at Planet Books years ago I was immediately intrigued by its title. The book presented as a fascinating angle on history, rather than the usual examination of events, wars, ruling dynasties, historical figures and so forth. What I didn’t know until I finally finished Ideas is that the history of ideas is actually a specific field of research in history and as an academic discipline it dates back to 1932 when a gentleman called Johan Nordstrom became the first professor of the new discipline at Uppsala University in Sweden. Watson’s Ideas is a hugely ambitious, but on the whole successful, undertaking; the kind of book that gets you talking with others about its contents. I read most of the book without knowing too much about the author and appropriately it turns out that Watson is extremely accomplished, having attended universities in London, Rome and Durham; he is a former journalist, an academic, intellectual and author of not only twelve non-fiction books but also seven novels.
Ideas is presented in five chronological parts: Lucy to Gilgamesh - The Evolution of Imagination; Isaiah to Zhu Xi - The Romance of the Soul; The Great Hinge of History - European Acceleration; Aquinas to Jefferson - The Attack on Authority, the Idea of the Secular and the Birth of Modern Individualism; and finally Vico to Freud - Parallel Truths: The Modern Incoherence. Each part features a series of fascinating chapters discussing the major influential ideas of that era. Watson’s style is engaging and rigorous in its intention to both be accurate and thought provoking, without being too dry and formal. Watson does what every worthwhile writer of non-fiction should do, he presents his arguments in a compelling manner, lodging them in your consciousness so that you can think about them within the context of your own evolving world view. Although Watson sometimes uses broad brush strokes there is a plethora of well researched detail to wonder over. Although Ideas took me a long time to get through, partly because for quite a while I was just reading bits here and there, a great deal of its dense text still remains with me and it has definitely altered my world view in useful and sometimes intriguing ways.
Some of the most prominent ideas that really stood out for me were the rise of statistics (yes, statistics), Romanticism, Monotheism and the utmost importance of both the Renaissance and Protestantism. Statistics is a remarkably significant and influential idea that is still significant today. The Victorians developed and used statistical methods as a way to accurately analyze human behavior, which then heavily influenced government decision making regarding such things as town planning. The initial chapter that covers the Renaissance: The Arrival of the Secular: Capitalism, Humanism, Individualism, and the chapters that follow, highlight just how much significant innovation in thought, art, the sciences and questions about humanity’s place in the cosmos occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries. Having studied medieval history at university I had a reasonable idea of the importance of this period in history, but Watson’s approach was both revealing and though-provoking. Humanism, the eventual rise of Atheism (initially to be an atheist meant that you denied Jesus, but not God) and Martin Luther’s decisive reaction to the all powerful Catholic Church all served to loosen the profound influence of Monotheism and in in particular Catholicism and paved the way, for good or bad, for the modern world of secularism, individualism and ultimately capitalism. Romanticism acted as an extension to Humanism, with the significant idea that the only thing that humans could be certain of was their own consciousness. This idea was spectacularly expressed by the multitude of amazing Romantic classical composers and poets that worked during that era (1770 - 1850). These ideas are, as you’d imagine, far more complex than my simplistic summation, but fortunately Watson’s eloquent arguments are superbly realised, so your best bet is to read the book and enjoy.
Realistically is almost impossible to summarize this amazing book, however apart from the fact that it is among the most thought-provoking non-fiction books I’ve ever read, it is worth considering aspects of Watson’s concluding statements. Watson claims that the three most influential ideas in history are the soul (surprisingly not God...), the idea of Europe and the idea of the experiment. The importance and profound impact of the experiment needs no further elaboration, however both Europe and the soul seem to be unusual choices. Watson explains that the concept of Europe as a cultural entity, in opposition to that of the medieval Islamic states, who turned their back on the innovations that Europe had to offer by isolating themselves within their own belief system, was integral to providing succor to education via universities as well as significant scientific and cultural advances. As for the idea of the soul Watson points out that the ancient idea that there is a eternal soul essence within humans allowed significant control over the lives of humanity wherever and whenever this idea prevailed. Watson argues that one only needs to ponder the profound control religion has exercised over humanity by manipulating the fear associated with what would happen to the soul after death. Christianity (and Monotheism generally) stands as a prime example of how powerful this idea has been.
Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that what a truly great non-fiction book needs to do is not just inform, but to inspire the reader to make their own connections and conclusions. Ideas provided such inspiration and I certainly count it as one of the most important non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Although Watson’s arguments are both compelling and sound throughout much of the book I’m uneasy with the idea that the soul is more influential than the idea of God. The idea of God has certainly inspired humanity in positive ways, for example to better ourselves morally and to try and understand reality, however more prevalent is the negative way in which God has significantly inhibited progress throughout history and has led to the deaths of millions of humans through war and persecution. Watson himself presents all the evidence you need, in particular the way in which the Catholic Church attempted to inhibit intellectual progress for centuries. Lastly if you are wondering, like I certainly did, why Ideas ends on the cusp of the twentieth century, it is because Watson had dedicated a previous book to the last hundred years or so, called A Terrible Beauty: the People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind (2000). A book I will no doubt get around to reading at some point in the coming years.
Friday, 8 September 2017
After finishing Oscar and Lucinda I pondered over the question of whether Peter Carey could be regarded as Australia’s greatest novelist. It is no doubt a contentious notion, but on the strength of this sublime novel I’d have to say that he is definitely a contender. Carey’s career has been impressive, with a string of critically acclaimed novels, some of which have made a significant cultural impact (such as True History of the Kelley Gang, published in 2000) and numerous literary prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award (three times) and the Man Booker Prize (twice). Often prize winning books can be disappointing, particularly Man Booker winners, such as the notorious The Finkler Question (just why is an interesting question - one worth considering at a later juncture...), but Oscar and Lucinda exceeded all of my expectations and I can say with confidence that it is one of the greatest novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
It is frankly hard to know where to begin with Oscar and Lucinda, but the first thing that comes to mind is that Carey’s prose is simply a joy to read; it’s richly descriptive, infused with sly humour, highly intelligent and appears to be both emulating and parodying the prose style of Victorian literature, in particular that of Dickens. The novel’s other great strength is that both Oscar and Lucinda are beautifully nuanced characters, but also every minor character is vividly realised as well, complete with back story and character quirks. Despite such qualities I did not initially warm to the novel, for some reason I tend to have problems with novels that begin with the protagonist’s childhood. Oscar’s childhood is dominated by his stern evangelical father, the marvelously named Theophilus Hopkins. However a significant theme (a theme I believe is the key to understanding much of the novel, in particular its denouement), that chance and fate are not random, but are the result of God’s will, is established during Oscar’s childhood when he derives the same result again and again whilst playing a game of chance of his own devising, interpreting it as a sure sign that he should leave his cruelly inflexible God fearing father and live with the nearby fusty Anglican couple, Hugh and Betty Stratton.
Although the story of Oscar and Lucinda is told from an omniscient point of view with Carey’s authorial voice on prominent display, the novel does in fact have a narrator, a descendant of Oscar’s who is mostly hidden and interjects on and off, but who’s identity does not seem to be all that important until the very end, where Carey pulls off a clever sleight of hand. The novel never succumbs to the obvious and in keeping with that point Oscar and Lucinda do not actually meet until half way through this lengthy novel. When they do meet it is on an aptly named ship called The Leviathan (apt due to the heavy religious themes throughout...) which is bound for Sydney. Carey deftly manipulates the reader into desiring a possible romance between Oscar and Lucinda. If the novel is indeed a love story then it is perhaps the most curious love story I’ve ever read. What is clear is the brilliance of this section of the novel; from the moment when Lucinda arrives to board the ship and spies the aqua-phobic Oscar being lifted onto the boat via a cage the narrative is satirically brilliant, engagingly comic, emotionally poignant and alive with beautifully descriptive language. This section also contains a brilliant example of Carey’s ability to tell a story via shifting points of view, in this case via the fiancee of Oscar’s friend, Ian Wardley Fish, a certain Miss Melody Clutterbuck (more fantastic Dickensian names...). Miss Clutterbuck witnesses Oscar’s distress at being so close to the water, his awkwardness around others and most of all his final moments with Theophilus, who falls to his knees to recite a farewell prayer that he cannot complete due to overwhelming emotions that are normally repressed; a masterful scene that is both humorous and touching.
Oscar and Lucinda is a novel stuffed full of narrative richness, it’s literally overflowing with everything you could ever want in a novel, in particular the two lead characters, whom are among my favourites in literature. Oscar is such a complex character, achingly devout but tortured by his vice for gambling, which he both justifies and regrets. Similarly Lucinda, a heiress and owner of glass-works based in Sydney, is both fragile and strong, displaying proto-feminist tendencies and an admirable moral outlook, yet her fondness for gambling leads her to precarious and sometimes humorous situations. One of the novel’s best scenes involves Lucinda offloading on a caretaker and his judgmental wife who climb through a window after spying Oscar and Lucinda playing cards in order to berate them both, but Lucinda turns the tables by admonishing them soundly before forcing them to climb back out through the window, a humiliation they can barely stand.
I don’t normally talk too much about the endings of novels, however Oscar and Lucinda’s endgame is, on the surface anyway, inexplicably unexpected. Without revealing too much, but perhaps enough to get you thinking, it occurred to me that the ending is actually very much in keeping with the novel’s preoccupation with gambling and its moral consequences. My thoughts on the matter run along the lines that ultimately life is a gamble and sometimes people are gazumped by circumstance or fate. Alternately, and in keeping with Oscar’s peculiar belief system, it could also be, in the end, simply God’s will. As with all great novelists Carey does not spell it out and you are left to ponder the novel’s deeper meanings. Lastly Carey has been mooted as a possible contender for the Nobel Peace Prize for literature, a prize he certainly deserves as he is right up there with Australia’s sole winner so far, the truly great Patrick White.
Monday, 7 August 2017
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
Monday, 20 February 2017
Last week I found out that one of my most favourite ever second hand book stores was closing down. It came as no surprise because the owner, a charming and slightly eccentric English gentleman by the name of Don, is most probably somewhere in the region of 80+ year’s old. When I first visited Mostly Books (as it was called way back then...) back in the 1990’s it was a sight to behold. Book shelves were arranged in a haphazard fashion and there were all kinds of curios and antiques scatted around the shop. Don had a specific ‘head’ section, where you could find Castaneda, Kerouac, Burroughs and all kinds of weird obscurities. There were books piled up everywhere and frankly, it was heaven. The current shop is a smaller version of its earlier incarnation, with Don sat in the very middle up on the second level, surrounded by shelves of books and weird objects. Entering the shop is like finding a nook attached to the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, and if you are not careful you’ll never find your way out again. Sadly however, it will all be over within a couple of months. All fiction is just $1 and all non fiction half price.
Most people reading this post would not live in the area (Bayswater, Western Australia), or even in the same country, but that doesn’t matter, the important point to consider is that book stores are not just businesses, they are significant cultural hubs that need supporting. Most of the chain book stores have disappeared, but at least many of the small independent shops have hung in there. Go to your local book store, don’t shop online, it’s totally soulless; ‘convenience’ and cheapness are not valid signifiers of a life well lived, or well read. Go talk to and get to know your book store staff, talk to the owner if you can, you’d be surprised what it adds to your life. I’ll never forget Don telling me stories about how during the London Blitz he and his friends would not go to the bomb shelters but instead would go up onto the tops of buildings to watch it all unfold; he said that it was a terrible beauty, but that they never felt scared. Sounds like it would make a great scene in a book...
Here’s a list of books I lugged out of the shop with me, all eighteen of them:
Japanese Short Stories - Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1961)
Masks - Fumiko Enchi (1958)
Helliconia Spring - Brian Aldiss (1982)
Helliconia Summer - Brian Aldiss (1983)
Helliconia Winter - Brian Aldiss (1985)
Imperial Bedrooms - Bret Eastern Ellis (2010)
Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand (1957)
The Martians - Kim Stanley Robinson (1999)
Winsburg, Ohio - Sherwood Anderson (1919)
The Complete Short Stories - Oscar Wilde (1980)
So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish - Douglas Adams (1984)
A Spy in the House of Love - Anais Nin (1954)
The Reality Dysfunction - Peter F. Hamilton (1996)
Complete Stories - Flannery O’Connor (1971)
Extro - Alfred Bester (1974)
Thirst for Love - Yukio Mishima (1950)
Tales of Power - Carlos Castaneda (1974)
The Heart Keeper - Francoise Sagan (1968)
Wednesday, 25 January 2017
It has been so long since I finished reading The Last Painting of Sara De Vos that I wondered whether I could give it an adequate review, however it is such a fine novel that I thought I must write about it, even if it’s in a limited way. The Last Painting of Sara De Vos was the final novel read for the library’s book club for 2016 and despite some tough competition it was voted by members as the best book of the year. The novel is certainly a deserving winner, featuring a compelling narrative rich in period detail, with convincing and nuanced characters. Dominic Smith is an Australian writer who has lived for many years in Texas, which is perhaps why he is not that well known in Australia, however I’m sure that this novel will reward him with much more exposure in his native country.
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos has three narrative strands, one set in 1950’s New York in which wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, eventually discovers that a beautiful painting by obscure Dutch Golden Age artist Sara de Vos, owned by his family for 300 years, has been swapped for a fake. Both de Groot and the painter of the fake, a young Australian called Ellie Shipley, feature in the sections set during the year 2000 in Sydney, Australia. The third narrative strand is set in seventeenth century Holland and features the artist Sara de Vos, the only female painter admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke’s at the time (de Vos is an imagined painter based on Judith Leyster, one of only 25 female painters accepted into the guild over all). Male artists dominated landscape painting during that era, so there is a mystery surrounding both how the de Vos painting came to be and the details of her life. Smith weaves these narrative strands together beautifully; there is never a moment of incongruity and he evokes each period setting with great authenticity, in particular 1950’s New York and 1630’s Holland.
Perhaps the main strength of The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is its great thematic depth, exploring notions of personal identity, the significance of cultural circumstance and the sometimes tragic vicissitudes of life. Both de Vos and Shipley struggle to make headway in male dominated professions and take risks that transform their lives in both negative and positive ways. Notions of authenticity and forgery are given an extra dimension when de Groot, in his efforts to locate his stolen painting, creates an alter-ego; creating a fake self to fool Shipley and in doing so ironically presents a real life counterpoint to her own artistic forgery. In one of the novel’s dry comic turns a party at the de Groots residence features a bunch of ‘Beats for hire’ to liven up proceedings and perhaps provide a distraction for swapping over the paintings. The novel is full of such multilayered detail and nothing is wasted, in particular Smith’s portrayal of the art world, with its odd characters, obscure rivalries and the arcane intensity of artistic technique, a subject Smith researched thoroughly.
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is an almost seamless novel in terms of plot and execution, but perhaps its greatest strength is its characters. The parallels drawn between Sara de Vos and Ellie Shipley, intentional or otherwise, give both characters added dimensions. Marty de Groot plays a fine supporting role, developing from an entitled and vengeful man into a compassionate and forgiving old man. There are also numerous minor characters that shine in their own way, in particular the idiosyncratic private detective de Groot hires when the police fail him. I’m sure that Smith worked long and hard at piecing together such a well crafted novel, but it doesn’t show at all; in fact he has pulled off that relatively rare feat, he has written a novel that is both complex and subtle, yet is also welcoming and rewarding for the reader, just the perfect read for book clubs really.
Thursday, 5 January 2017
|Some of my books, resting quietly.|
Looking at the list of books I read last year my first impression is that they are an odd bunch. The combination of books I read of my own volition and those that I read for the book club make strange bedfellows. Among the novels read for the book club Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata (2016), Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) were among the best, but the most satisfying novel was undoubtedly Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara De Vos (2016) (I’m yet to write a review...). My library’s book club voted it their best book of the year and although it was not my personal choice for best book it was certainly close. As for the worst book of the year the book club agreed with me absolutely: Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (2015) was the most reprehensible novel I’ve read since Howard Jacobson’s dreaded The Finkler Question (2010).
Although Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest and The Three Body Problem and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch were all excellent reads, the prize for best book of 2016 has to go to Patrick Rothfuss’ fantasy novel The Name of the Wind (2007). Of all the books I read across 2016 The Name of the Wind came the closest to being rated as sublime. In hindsight I think that the only reason I did not give it the top rating was because of my unfamiliarity with the fantasy genre. Currently I’m reading its follow-up, The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) and although I’m only a third of the way through it’s looking like it could gain my highest rating in 2017.
Once again I’m looking forward to another year of reading, but as usual I wish that I had more time to get through my ever growing pile of unread books, but of course the one thing that is guaranteed is that I will not stop adding to the pile of books waiting to be read! Just give me more books!