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Review Catch-up #1 - Mixed Fiction

It’s that time again: time to scramble up some reviews of books read over the last year that I never had time (or brain energy) to discuss before. I even have a couple from 2015 that I didn’t get around to, oh dear. This is all part of my pledge-to-self to review every book I read, which I cling to stubbornly, even though it gets harder and harder to keep up.

The Dinner by Herman Koch
Translated by Sam Garrett

Atlantic Books 2012 (2009)
Mass Market Paperback
309 pages
Fiction; Thriller

When I reviewed Herman Koch’s 2014 novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool, fellow reviewer Brona noted that my description of that book mirrored her own to The Dinner, Koch’s first successful book (and first to be translated into English). Now that I’ve read both, I would have to concur that they share similar themes and ideas, from the compelling yet morally unpleasant male narrator to the confronting scenario of protective fatherhood versus wanton violence.

The Dinner, in ‘real time’, takes place over the course of a dinner at a fancy restaurant, but within this present-day setting – structured over a five-course meal – the narrator, Paul, takes us back through recent events so that we slowly build a fuller understanding of just what the tension and undercurrents are at this dinner. Paul and his wife, Claire, are dining with Paul’s politician brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. Serge is a virtual shoe-in for next Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and something of a celebrity – incurring Paul’s annoyance and envy. The last thing Serge would want on the eve of an election is a scandal, but that’s exactly what is brewing: a scandal centred around Serge and Paul’s sons, Rick and Michel, and the murder of a homeless woman.

This social realism story is a deceptively simple one: it’s not about solving a mystery so much as delving into some pretty dark neuroses at both the individual level – Paul, we slowly discover, has some kind of mysterious (unrevealed) condition and is prone to moments of violence – and at a social one. How we care for each other, the divisions of class and wealth, expectations of parents and children, how we interact and socialise. The ethical dilemma at the heart of this book gives it great thrust, and is sure to unsettle and disturb any reader – thus providing much food for thought.

Read in July 2016.

Amnesia by Peter Carey
Penguin Books 2015 (2014)
Trade Paperback
377 pages

I actually hesitated in selecting the Australian flag here, rather than the U.S. one – it often feels as if Carey has turned his back on his birth country, but then along comes a novel like Amnesia (which, to my more cynical mind, seems like a book to prove this point) and Carey’s complete Australianness becomes apparent. With its connection to politics, the law, ethics and forgotten 20th century history, Amnesia reminded me a bit of the ABC television show, Rake. The main character, Felix Moore, is a similarly rabble-rousing trouble-maker, fallen out of favour, though not a womaniser or scoundrel of that ilk. Moore is one of the last investigative journalists in the country (again, my cynical mind argues that Australian journalism has disappeared almost completely, though certain current affairs programs, particularly on the ABC, continue to soldier on as best they can).

However, Amnesia is really the story of Gabrielle (Gaby) Baillieux, a hacker from Melbourne whose own mother, Celine, was a baby born from the rape of a woman by a U.S. soldier stationed in Australia during World War II. This incident is a good example of the chilly, tense tone between the two countries, as Felix explains an American (CIA) involvement in getting rid of Gough Whitlam in the 70s and installing the conservative prime minister, Robert Menzies – all because Whitlam cancelled a deal between the two countries that enabled the US to continue using Australian territory for some of its Cold War operations. How much of this is true I don’t personally know, but it’s highly plausible. If it is true, it fits in exactly with the premise of the novel, as put forward by the title: that we forget these things, that as a country we have deliberately chosen to forget, making historical ‘fact’ slide into myth and then disappear entirely.

This is all stirred up when Gaby uses a worm to infect the computer systems that operate the private American prisons – and, by connection, the Australian ones too (a dig at the continued out-sourcing of things like prisons to private, for-profit corporations is ever-present), thus releasing all the prisoners. On the run and in hiding, Gaby’s mother Celine and an old friend, Woody Townes – a wealthy (but seemingly dodgy) businessman – hire Felix to write the book on Gaby. He barely gets to meet her, though, instead dumped on an isolated island in a river to transcribe old-fashioned cassette tapes and make sense of both Gaby and Celine’s version of the past – and each other.

In many ways, Amnesia is riveting and wonderful in its old-fashioned style, connecting contemporary concerns with forgotten history. It highlights the importance in understanding the past in order to not only make sense of the present but to more intelligently question it, and deal with it. But it is also a deeply disappointing novel for how it is structured and what it chooses to delve into, at the expense of the present. The ending is also a bit of a let-down, feeling sadly anti-climactic. I greatly appreciated learning about Gaby’s motives, her youthful activism when trying to bring justice against a water-polluting company, Agrikem, but as engaging as her childhood and adolescence is to read about, it’s also quite lengthy and for a long time you’re not at all sure where it’s going. The links between Agrikem, the prisons, the overturning of Whitlam’s government and, frankly, everything else seemed a bit tenuous, in that elements of the plot seemed to get dropped and forgotten (the irony!). Though it could also be the effect of several months having gone by since I read this.

There is a lot to enjoy here, and enjoy it I did, for all its tendency to be a bit convoluted (even bloated) at times.

Read in May 2016.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Serpent’s Tail 2014 (2013)
Trade Paperback
308 pages

It is always hard to review a novel that contains an unexpected twist about a third of the way through – rather like Never Let Me Go (though everyone else spoiled that, especially when the movie came out). What’s especially annoying in this case is that something I read somewhere gave away the twist in this wonderful book – something read in an unguarded moment, just as Nikki Gemmell gave away the twist of Gone Girl (without warning) in her column for The Weekend Australian Magazine. I was pretty pissed about that.

So I already knew about Fern when I started this book, making the twist vanish entirely. I don’t want to do that to anyone else, but I’m not sure how to discuss this book without it – which is probably why I’ve let it go so long before attempting to review it.

I will say this: I loved this book, regardless. The narrator, Rosemary, a uni student in the present, explores her unusual childhood and where – when – everything changed. Her older brother Lowell is on the run from the FBI; Rosemary has made a new friend, Harlow, who gets her in trouble with the police; and, finally, Rosemary learns the truth about Fern and goes looking for her. The non-linear nature of the story’s structure, as well as the tenuous nature of memory and false memories, make this a rich and unpredictable book, while the ethical and moral questions posed are compelling.

The nature of childhood, loyalty, love and envy are all explored here, as is human nature and the meaning of our relationships, not just with each other but with other creatures too. I may have been slightly disappointed by the ending, perhaps because I was expecting something darker or more climactic, but it works and feels true.

Read in June 2016.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Allen & Unwin 2010 (2009)
Trade Paperback
394 pages
Historical Fiction

I first bought this book in February 2011, when I was back in Australia and wanted to grab a few titles I couldn’t, at the time, get in Canada. It’s sad that it’s taken me nearly 6 years to get around to reading it, especially considering how enjoyable it is. It certainly would have increased my homesickness at the time – maybe that’s why I didn’t read it then. Jasper Jones has been liberally compared to To Kill a Mockingbird (most notably, by The Monthly); some go so far as to call it “derivative” while it has also made the First Tuesday Book Club‘s Top 10 List of Aussie Books to Read Before You Die (which, for posterity – because things disappear sometimes – I have saved here as well, including the top 50 list). For the record, I didn’t find it derivative at all. There are parallels between Jones and Mockingbird, which Silvey tips his hat to on numerous occasions through his young, well-read narrator, Charlie Bucktin, but this is a novel that stands on its own. It both highlights the universality of racial prejudice and discrimination, especially amongst ex-colony countries, and adds new layers to the issue – distinctly Australian layers but also stretching out into sexual abuse and class divides.

Taking place over the summer holidays (December to February) in 1965-6, the story begins with thirteen-year-old Charlie’s late-night reading being interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Jasper Jones, the fifteen-year-old half-Aboriginal outcast boy who is blamed for absolutely everything in the (fictional) small mining town of Corrigan, WA. Charlie has never met Jasper Jones before, but his reputation precedes him. He feels somewhat dazzled to be singled out and seeks to impress Jasper in small ways. But Jasper has called on him for help in desperate circumstances: in his secret clearing in the bush by a small dam, where Jasper goes to escape the town’s censure, is a girl, hanging by the neck from a tree. It is Laura Wishart, wearing her nightie, dead. Jasper knows for sure that the cops will arrest him for murder and no real investigation will take place: he is the culprit for everything, expendable and unwanted – except on the footy oval, where he excels.

Enlisting Charlie’s help, the two hide the body to give them time to discover what really happened. Charlie’s youthful crush on Laura’s younger sister, Eliza, adds to his sense of personal guilt, while the townsfolk crack down on their children’s freedom in the wake of Laura’s disappearance. Charlie’s best friend, Jeffrey Lu, whose Vietnamese parents mourn the deaths of relatives while being persecuted by the locals – Asians taking jobs from white people, or blamed for the deaths of Australian soldiers fighting a proxy war in Vietnam – is a cricket fanatic and an excellent player, but is sidelined because of his ethnicity. This is the summer in which Charlie Bucktin grows up, falls in love, has his first kiss – and many more – and faces up to the paradoxes of human nature: that we are capable of extreme acts of cruelty towards others, that life isn’t fair or just, but that there is great depths of good in people too.

While at first I worried at the amount of internal reflecting from Charlie – especially problematic with the use of present tense, which requires a much faster pace in order to maintain its ‘in the moment’ dynamic (my dislike for present tense – or the over-use and inappropriate use of present tense – is well documented on my blog) – it develops a nice rhythm as well as Charlie’s character development. This coming-of-age story requires it, in the end, though I maintain that Silvey really didn’t need to use present tense (it was distracting at times, and muddied the flow: ironically, present tense can achieve the direct opposite effect of what it is often intended for, and Silvey is guilty of those narrative tics like “Later…”, which can really only be used when a character or unnamed focaliser is narrating the story as if to an audience).

This is often labelled a Young Adult novel, because of the age of its protagonists, but while To Kill a Mockingbird is quite clearly meant for younger readers (children, in fact), Jasper Jones is much more ‘adult’ in its handling of the themes and broader ideas. From the inherent racism in Australian society, which continues to this day, to the nifty parallels between the Lu family, the Wisharts, Charlie’s own family and, of course, Jasper Jones and the tragic story of his Aboriginal mother, as well as the questions Charlie poses regarding cruelty – all of this makes for a more sophisticated read than Mockingbird, which I foolishly first read as an adult and, while enjoying it and its famous characters, found to be too obvious and moralising for my taste. Here, setting is just as vividly used as in Harper Lee’s book: the mining town of Corrigan is tangible, from the heat to the singletted men to the cricket pitch.

At its heart is Jasper Jones, one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve come across in a while. Jasper Jones – he is often referred to by his full name, like a celebrity – is evidence of all that is wrong in Australian society. You could make this a 2016 novel and not much would change, except the sense of nostalgia would be gone, to be replaced by a dark and disturbing realism. I wonder at that choice, what the mid-60s setting does to the element of hope at the end of the book: how much we need the illusion that all we be well, even though, fifty-odd years later, we know it won’t be.

Read in December 2016.

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar
Back Bay Books 2013
Trade Paperback
87 pages (plus author interview)

Ayad Akhtar, author of the successful novel American Dervish (still on my TBR pile), is a Pakistani-American novelist and playwright whose 2013 play Disgraced has been a hit on the stage. I haven’t seen it, unfortunately, but I suspect that the stage production would have all the intensity, dynamism, energy and tension that the script eludes to but lacks. This is a play that doesn’t read all that well, but would be, I’m sure, a strong story in the hands of the right actors and director. That said, it is still a memorable and interesting play to read.

Disgraced is the story of a successful New York couple, Amir and Emily. Amir, a lawyer, is of South Asian origins while his wife, Emily, is a white American. This miscegenation creates instant tension for the audience in the context of place and time, not only because of our cultural understandings around mixed-race couples in post-9-11 America, but because Emily, an artist, is sketching Amir after being inspired by an old painting of a slave. Emily has an interest in middle eastern art and culture, but as much as she understands and sympathises with people like Amir, she doesn’t really know because she’s never lived it. Her white privilege – as well as her class and apparent wealth – shelter her, and cause her to miss the simmering tension in her husband, his prickly argumentativeness.

Religion is, as you might expect, a key element in Disgraced. Amir was raised Muslim but is now an atheist with little patience for any religion, or religious excuses. Still, he lets his nephew and his wife get him involved in the case of an imam being accused of funding terrorism. As a lawyer, he works for a profitable law firm and feels confident that he will make partner, while Emily is given a big break with a solo exhibition at the Whitney, a gallery curated by Isaac whose wife, Jory, is a lawyer at the same firm as Amir. Jory is African-American while Isaac is white; there is clear sexual tension between Emily and Isaac, two white people in mixed-race marriages.

The play builds up to a dinner scene between the two couples, where things get heated. The climax of the play, though, is both shocking in its swift and hideous violence and also inevitable. It is also the moment when you lose respect for the characters and start to feel like we are instruments of our own doom because we are incapable of escaping or surmounting cultural differences, expectations and prejudices. For all Amir is intelligent, highly educated, self-reflective and, in some small ways, a victim, he is also just as human – just as fallible and flawed – as anyone else. Ultimately, it is a play about people who disappoint, in a culture or society that disappoints even more. Several big issues and themes are raised in four short scenes, and Akhtar does well presenting the characters in all their flawed glory without moralising or making clear what course of action is the ‘right’ one. It is clear, however, what is wrong, and one of the interesting things about this play is just many different kinds of things can be deemed ‘wrong’, from adultery to disowning your birth culture, from domestic violence to terrorism.

There are so many ways human beings can stuff up, which Disgraced explores, as well as what we can lose of ourselves and each other in doing so, and what externalities we can be a slave to.

Read in October 2016.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Corgi Books 2016 (2015)
Trade Paperback
280 pages
YA Fiction

I’m a tentative fan of Sophie Kinsella’s novels – some I have absolutely loved, others have been slightly annoying, while The Undomestic Goddess left me cringing. Finding Audrey is Kinsella’s first Young Adult novel, a sort of John Green-type story but with more human warmth, humour and, frankly, realism than Green (I might be the only person who isn’t gaga over John Green, who is seriously over-rated, but the comparison is a fair one I think). Audrey Turner is a young teen suffering from severe anxiety after an incident at school the year before, in which three girls bullied her to the point of giving her a breakdown. She is slowly showing signs of recovering, but hides behind dark sunglasses, even inside, and rarely ventures out. Her older brother, Frank, spends all his time on the computer playing Land of Conquerors, and their younger brother, Felix, is a delightful toddler. Their parents are showing signs of stress, especially their mother, who puts most of her energy into combating what she sees as Frank’s computer addiction – to the point of throwing his computer out of the upstairs’ bedroom window. In Audrey’s view, the whole family is nuts.

Her psychologist, Dr Sarah, encourages her to make a film, hoping that being behind the camera will help Audrey interact with others. But it is the arrival of Linus, Frank’s teammate for LOC, that makes the most significant change. Audrey’s attraction to Linus and Linus’s patient bridge-building with her pave the way for real improvement, but it’s a tenuous one, easily damaged.

Finding Audrey is both funny and serious, combining real-world issues like bullying with a wry, deprecating tone that helps balance the stresses I feel are coming to dominate the lives of young people. Audrey’s case is an extreme one, but the number of teenagers with anxiety and/or depression seem to be rising. People, even young people, have the capacity to be truly awful to each other, but Finding Audrey is really about the positive, hopeful, loving and loyal connections we make with each other, which can help save us from our worst qualities.

Read in July 2016.

Ruben Guthrie by Brendan Cowell
Currency Press 2011
Trade Paperback
64 pages

The play Ruben Guthrie, which was made into a feature film (released 2015), is about a young, successful advertising executive (Ruben) whose fiancée, a model called Zoya (whom he started dating when she was just a teenager), challenges him to quit drinking after yet another booze-soaked party leaves him with a broken arm. After Ruben attends his first AA meeting, he celebrates by opening a bottle of champagne; at this point, Zoya walks out, returning to her native country, the Czech Republic, to study documentary filmmaking.

Ruben’s journey to give up the drink is beset on all sides by his parents, his best friend, his boss and the general Australian culture, which links drinking to sport and masculinity. His father, also an alcoholic who has left Ruben’s mother for the Asian chef from his restaurant, tries to get him to drink again, while his boss, an alcoholic who’s been dry for years, tells him point-blank to start drinking again because Ruben just isn’t good at his job otherwise. The perceived connection between alcohol and being creative (a la Hunter S Thompson) is reminiscent of the view that smoking weed is a must for artists. Ruben’s best friend, a gay man recently returned from a failed job in the States, presents the biggest challenge for Ruben when he turns up with bottles of duty free booze. All around him, the message is the same: drink up, you’re a bore without it.

Despite still being engaged to Zoya, Ruben becomes involved with a woman from the AA meetings, Virginia, and the comparisons between Alcoholics Anonymous and a religious cult become apparent. Virginia makes the ‘other side’ less than appealing, and really, when it comes down to it, everyone is revealed as less than worthy in this play. I can’t help but feel it is an apt reflection of Australian society. We sell an image not just to the world but to ourselves, but ultimately, our culture has so many problems – drinking is just one of many.

A timely story about Australian culture’s messed-up relationship with booze, and how we actively sabotage people’s efforts at change.

Read in November 2016.

Unsticky by Sarra Manning
Corgi Books 2012 (2009)
Trade Paperback
562 pages
Fiction; Chick-lit

Unsticky was recommended to me by Angie (Angieville) many years ago, and I am pleased to have finally read it. It’s an interesting novel, not quite what I expected, with Grace being a mix of Sophie Kinsella’s shopaholic and Bridget Jones, and the love interest, Vaughan – a sickeningly rich art dealer – being a far from likeable character. It has humour but it is shadowed by a tense edginess, and overall left me feeling quite unsettled. It’s still compulsive reading; while long, it isn’t slow or tedious. It is a kind of coming-of-age story for Grace, a maligned, lowly assistant at a fashion magazine whose boss, Kiki, is truly quite horrible. I expected Grace to give it the flick but she doesn’t, she soldiers on and actually, finally, makes some progress there – all because of the new confidence and assertiveness, not to mention other polishing skills, she acquires as Vaughan’s mistress.

It’s Eliza Doolittle with sex, really. And there’s plenty of it – not overly detailed, but the tension is ever-present. Vaughan’s no real hero, in fact he’s a bit of a prick, but Manning does a good job of making both Grace and Vaughan believable, and their attraction to each other believable as well – especially on Grace’s side. Grace’s growing up isn’t rushed, but she does mature and improve for the better. I’m not so sure about Vaughan, though, and in the end I still wouldn’t want to spend social time in his company. Having said all that, I like books that make me uneasy, that aren’t always comfortable, so I do recommend this as an edgier ‘chick-lit’ type of read.

Read in October 2016.

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