Author Archives: BookerTalk

10 Novels To Generate Hangovers

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is The Last Ten Books That Gave Me a Book Hangover .

Though its many, many years since I experienced a hangover, I can still remember the symptoms. The disturbed sleep; the thudding headache and the feeling of nausea.

No-one really goes out drinking with the intention of getting a hangover do they? No more than I ever deliberately choose books that I think will give me a hangover feeling. But some of them do provoke those unwelcome reactions.

Headache Generators

I’m thinking here of books that have complex plots or complicated structures or are written in a very dense style.

How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman

Appropriately this Booker Prize winner begins with the protagonist Sammy waking up in a lane after a two-day drinking binge. It would have been challenging enough to understand because everything that happens to this guy is told in stream of consciousness style. But its made even more challenging because the story is rendered in a working class Scottish dialect. (Imagine a drunken rant by Billy Connolly and you might get the picture). I struggled my way through just over 100 pages but then decided I’d had enough.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

This was a clever novel of two characters and three versions of their lives. The chapters switch between the different versions of the couple but at the exact same point in time. It was a fascinating approach to narration but I did find it confusing initially and had to take notes to keep each couple and each version clear in my head.  

Midnights Children by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s much-lauded novel falls into the category for me of “impressive rather than enjoyable.” It had such a dazzling array of allusion and digressions plus political references I didn’t understand that reading it felt like wading through mud. I could read only a couple of pages a night.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A beautifully contrived novel with two time zones and two settings that incorporates several themes. One of them considers the elusive nature of time:

In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then. Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.

Maybe not the best thing to read late at night when the brain wants to shut down. But worse was to come – a section that baffled me was an explanation of a thought experiment called Schrödinger’s Cat which tries to explain how a being may be simultaneously both alive and dead.

Sleep Disturbers

The books in this group are all books that were so engrossing I had to keep reading, even though it was far beyond lights out time.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Boy am I glad I’m not reading this right now. It’s premise of a flu virus that is so virulent it wipes out 99% of the world’s population would be rather too close for comfort to the current Coronovirus outbreak. It does make you worry about how you’d cope in a world where everything you know no longer exists.

The North Water by McGuire, Ian

Long listed for the  Man Booker 2016, this is a fast-paced novel that pulls no punches about the brutal and bloody business of whaling in the 1840s. It leaves no doubt that this is a business in which only the most nimble, selfish and ruthless men will survive.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

I imagine there are English lit students beavering away even now on comparative essays involving The Hours and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. That wasn’t what kept me awake however. The Hours is simply a brilliant novel of three generations of women who all, in different ways, suffer issues of mental health and alienation.

Nausea Inducers

Horror stories or tales with graphic violence are absolutely not to my taste. Sometimes however you can’t avoid an element of violence or passages which are not for the faint-hearted.

Alex by Pierre LeMaitre

The opening chapters of Alex are gruesome; definitely not for the squeamish. But just when you think you can’t bear to read any more, Lemaitre masterfully brings us some relief in the form of the police hunt for a girl who’s been abducted. If it hadn’t switched gear I couldn’t have continued reading.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

The beauty of Lullaby is that it contains the suspense of violence without forcing us to confront its reality. We know right from the beginning that a nanny kills two children in her care. The interest isn’t what she did but why.

Pure by Andrew Miller

 The smell of stench and decay is impossible to avoid when you read this book. Set in Paris the book introduces us to an engineer charged with removing the graves from a cemetery in the city. But the stench of corruption and evil presages what happens a few years later when the Revolution is in full flood (or should that be full blood?)


Dark Tales of Strangeness in Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is the darkest, strangest book I’ve read in a very long time.

I found it in the library when I was scouting around for Japanese authors I could read for Japanese Literature Challenge #13. I’d read one book by Yoko Ogawa previously (The Housekeeper and the Professor) and thoroughly enjoyed it so this seemed a good bet. But I didn’t realise that Revenge isn’t a novel but a collection of eleven tales featuring characters who are seemingly disconnected.

As you read on, you realise that the lives of these hospital workers, schoolchildren, writers, hairdressers and bakers are linked by recurring images and motifs. Each story follows on from the previous one, becoming increasingly unsettling and rather macabre.

You wouldn’t know that from the first story “Afternoon at the Bakery” which is about a woman who goes to a bakery one sunny Sunday afternoon to buy two strawberry cakes. One for her and one for her son. While waiting to be served she gets into a conversation with another customer, a trader in spices, who is a regular at the bakery:

“I can guarantee they’re good. The best thing in the shop. The base is made with our special vanilla.”

“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”

“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”

This innocent chit chat suddenly turns darker with the first customer’s response:

Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.

Supernatural and Normal Lie Together

And with that one line, Yoko Ogawa turns the whole story on its head. It’s no longer a feel-good tale of an adoring mother wanting to buy just the perfect cake for her son, but one of tragedy and inconsolable grief.

This tale is the jumping off point for our immersion into a world in which eeriness and normality live side by side. The shock of the grotesque and unnerving is evident in all these tales.

In “Old Mrs J” for example an elderly woman digs up a carrot in the shape of a human hand: “It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed with a thick thumb and a longer finger in the middle.” Reading it you know this isn’t just one of those odd vegetables newspapers love to report on slow news days. But the significance doesn’t become apparent until right at the end when a body is discovered.

“Welcome to The Museum of Torture” introduces us to an ex butler who has become the self appointed curator of a collection of torture instruments. As he takes his latest visitor around, detailing the ways in which each instrument is used, she begins to imagine – with glee – using the them upon the boyfriend who’s just dumped her.

In the tale which I found the most unsettling, “Sewing For The Heart“; the narrator is a maker of bags and purses. He lives a simple life above his shop, spending his evenings sat at the window looking down on the passers-by. But his life changes when a customer, a night club singer, arrives asking him to make a pouch to hold the heart that lies outside her body.

And so begins an obsession; an overwhelming desire “to run my fingertips over each tiny bump and furrow, touch my lips to the veins, soft tissue on soft tissue ….” The pride he takes in his craftsmanship is destroyed however when the customer learns she can have surgery that will mean she no longer needs the leather bag; a development that propels him to seek revenge.

Dark Slice of Life

These stories have a cumulative effect as a detail from one carries over into the next. A dead hamster in one story turns up in the rubbish bin in the next tale and the abandoned fridge in which the child mentioned in “Afternoon at the Bakery” met his death, makes an appearance on the final page of he collection.

Sometimes the connection is hinted at rather than made explicit. “Lab Coats” for example ends with a hospital worker confessing how she killed her boyfriend, a respiratory medicine doctor, because he wouldn’t divorce his wife. The next tale, “Sewing For The Heart” begins with repeated pager messages for a respiratory doctor who is meant to be on duty but can’t be found. Two stories later and a different narrator learns that the doctor upstairs has been been killed.

The overall effect is chilling. In one line from the story called “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” the narrator, after reading “Afternoon at the Bakery,” remarks: “there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.”

Interest Wanes

Except that I didn’t feel I did want to plunge into these tales. I admit I am not the target audience for Revenge since I’m not a fan of short stories generally nor am I a fan of creepy, macabre kind of tales. I wouldn’t honestly have read this if I’d paid more attention to the description on the back cover.

I admired the way Yoko Ogawa wove these stories together, joining all the details seamlessly. I admired too, the precision of her language, which evokes atmosphere with just slight touches. But I didn’t enjoy the book. I kept wondering what point Ogawa was trying to make. That we’re all capable of revenge? That appearances can be deceptive? I got to the end and I was no clearer on the message. Without a driving theme, the book just seemed to rely on spookiness and oddities. After a while this became repetitive and I found myself just wanting to get to the end quickly.

Authors At Home: William Wordsworth And Dove Cottage

You don’t need to have detailed knowledge about William Wordsworth to know about his close association with the Lake District in north west England.

Grasmere Lake, beloved by William Wordsworth
Grasmere Lake, Lake District, England
Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons Licence

He and his sister Dorothy were born there but left when their mother died and their father sent them to different parts of the country. William to be educated in Lancashire, then Cambridge; and Dorothy to live with relatives in Yorkshire.

But the countryside of Cumberland and the lakes was a constant draw for William. In 1779, while on a walking tour of the Lake District he found a cottage for rent in the south east of the district, near the village and lake of of Grasmere. He and Dorothy settled there in December that year.

The cottage became their home for more than eight years. William Wordsworth described his new home and the garden surrounding it as “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found”.

He arrived having already published a collection of poems now recognised as a landmark in the Romantic movement: Lyrical Ballads. At Grasmere his work flourished, inspired by his proximity to the ever-changing landscape of the valleys and hills surrounding the cottage.

It was here that he he produced some of the most famous and best-loved of his poems: his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality“, “Ode to Duty“, “My Heart Leaps Up” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud“. He also wrote a new Prelude to Lyrical Ballads together with parts of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude.

Today, the home he occupied with first his sister, and then with his wife and three children, is open to the public, visited by more than 70,000 people each year.

Dove Cottage, home to William Wordsworth
Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Source: personal collection

I turned up one summer day in 2015, only to be disappointed because there were no admission tickets left that day. The cottage is tiny and such is the level of demand, that numbers have to be strictly controlled by the Wordsworth Trust that manages the building. Fortunately I was more successful on my second attempt.

“Dove Cottage” as it’s now called (it didn’t take that name until after Wordsworth’s time) is a solid looking two storey building with lime-washed walls and a slate roof. Inside there are four rooms on each floor, showing many of the original features and items owned by the Wordsworths. The collection of wooden sticks used by Dorothy to clean her teeth were an oddity. I was more taken with a beautiful wooden chest which contained a precious store of expensive tea leaves.

William Wordsworth’s Tea Caddy:
Source: personal collection

On the ground floor there are four rooms, with oak panels and slate floors typical of Lakeland buildings from the eighteenth century. One room next to the main door was a room which had multiple functions: it was used as a parlour or reception room but also had a cooking range. The main kitchen, was in a smaller space with an attached buttery or larder.

A smaller room next to the parlour was initially used as Dorothy’s bedroom. Such was her devotion to her brother, that when he married in 1802, she relinquished this room to the married couple because the ceiling of their own bedroom was leaking.

Upstairs were the bedrooms and a second parlour used for entertaining and light meals. Right at the front of the house is the room used by William Wordsworth as his study, with views over the meadows to Grasmere Lake. It was fun to imagine him in this chair watching the clouds rolling in over the hills or the light flickering in the fireplace.

William Wordsworth's study

It would be easy to romanticise the cottage. But it can’t have been easy to manage the domestic arrangements; there was no running water inside the house for one thing. It would have been quite crowded at times with three adults, three children and the numerous visitors that came to stay.

The Wordsworths employed a local girl as a maid to take care of their cooking and washing but Dorothy’s journal also makes it clear that she was not averse to rolling up her sleeves to get domestic chores done. In their first summer in the cottage, she records one Monday that she:

 bound carpets, mended old clothes, read Timon of Athens, dried linen…

There were compensations however.

The house had a tiered garden and orchard at the rear that the Wordsworths set about arranging as a semi wild space. into a “little nook of mountain-ground” (The Farewell). Dorothy’s journal gives us a glimpse of the hours they devoted to the project.

In May 1800 she notes:

I brought home lemon-thyme, and several other plants, and planted them by moonlight.

Then the following month comes this entry:

In the morning W. cut down the winter cherry tree. I sowed French beans and weeded. …  In the evening I stuck peas, watered the garden, and planted brocoli. (sic)

Dove Cottage, home to William Wordsworth
Garden at rear of Dove Cottage
Source: personal collection

When they weren’t working or sitting in the garden, brother and sister spent their time walking or on the lake; all the time observing and reflecting on what lay around them. The results were captured in Dorothy’s Journal and in William’s poems. In one unpublished poem (later titled Home at Grasmere)  he meditated on what it meant to make this environment his home.

Embrace me then, ye Hills, and close me in;
Now in the clear and open day I feel
Your guardianship; I take it to my heart;
‘Tis like the solemn shelter of the night.
But I would call thee beautiful, for mild,
And soft, and gay, and beautiful thou art
Dear Valley, having in thy face a smile
Though peaceful, full of gladness. Thou art pleased,
Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake,
Its one green island and its winding shores;
The multitude of little rocky hills,
Thy Church and cottages of mountain stone
Clustered like stars some few, but single most,
And lurking dimly in their shy retreats,
Or glancing at each other cheerful looks
Like separated stars with clouds between.

 The family abandoned Dove Cottage in May 1808 to find more spacious accommodation. It was then occupied by one of their friends Thomas de Quincey who lived there for several years.

 The cottage was acquired by the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 and opened to the public as a writer’s home museum in 1891. Its status and importance is preserved for the nation through its designation as a Grade 1 listed building,

If you’re ever in the vicinity of Grasmere, do make a point of visiting the cottage. I’d recommend you go as late in the afternoon as possible when the bulk of visitors will have left and you can sit in the arbour at the top of the garden, and enjoy the peace and solitude that William would have known.

10 Novels On The Theme Of Love

I fell out of the habit of doing the Top Ten Tuesday posts but let’s see if this week’s topic re-ignites my enthusiasm.

In a week that includes St Valentine’s Day, it’s appropriate that the topic is is: a Love Freebie. I’ve chosen books with the word love in the title. or a word associated with that emotion. The first group are books I’ve read (links are to my reviews) and the rest are ones that are on my shelves waiting to be read.

Nina Bawden, A Little Love, a Little Learning 

By far the best of the three books I’ve read by Nina Bawden. It’s about a family whose unremarkable life is disturbed by the arrival of an old friend with an insatiable appetite for gossip.

William Boyd, Love is Blind

Not one of Boyd’s best unfortunately. It’s a tale of the obsessive love of a Scottish piano tuner for a Russian singer. But it moves at a very slow pace and it quite repetitive. It was hard to get enthused about whether the piano tuner gets his girl in the end.

Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate

This is meant to be a very witty novel about the daughter of a wealthy family who wants to marry a very unsuitable man. Her mother wants her to marry someone wealthy. I’d say its more slightly amusing than sparkling with wit.

Since I have only three books that strictly speaking contain the word love, I’m going to exercise some creativity with my next two choices.

Andrew  Taylor, Bleeding Heart Square

The heart is meant to be the organ of love isn’t it? This isn’t really a hearts and roses kind of tale however, it’s set in a grubby corner of London where Oswald Mosely blackshirts roam the streets.

Brian MooreThe Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

A terrific novel about a lonely down at heel spinster in Ireland who desperately wants to find love and a husband. Her lets her imagination run away with her with a desperately sad consequence.

Let’s see what I have on my TBR that fits the brief.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

I know this is highly regarded. I know Marquez is a Nobel prize winning author. But I have tried three times to read this book and have failed every time. I’m going to give it one more go but if the experience is repeated, it’s going in the bag of donations to a charity second hand bookshop.

Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost lovers

I can’t even remember buying this book let alone recall anything about it. Goodreads came to my rescue and told me that ostensibly it’s about the murder of a pair of lovers. But in fact its a dissection of working-class Pakistani immigrant communities that have settled in the north of England over the last 40 years. Anyone read this? If so, is it worth reading?

Toni Morrison, Beloved

One that it seems ‘everyone’ has read. I’ll get to it – sometime…..

Thorne Moore, Mother Love

The second novel by this Welsh author. I bought it after enjoying her debut A Time For Silence. It’s a psychological thriller involving three women. One horrified to be pregnant again, one who is desperate to adopt and the third who is terrified her baby will be taken from her.

Hanne Ørstavik, Love

This is the shortest book I have on my shelves. It was chosen as part of my subscription to the Asymptote Book Club. I have high hopes for this based on my experience of another of Ørstavik’s books – The Blue Room – which was also a Asymptote Book Club choice. According to The Guardian, Love, is “an eerie, devastating little book about a mother and son in the far north of Norway.” Maybe not the kind of book associated with romance but then love doesn’t always turn out happily does it?

Love in fiction

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. To join in, just visit her blog.

World Literary Tour: Visit Japan in 5 Books

5 books of Japanese Literature

Today is National Foundation Day (Kenkokukinen-no-Hi), in Japan, a day which marks the enthronement of the country’s first Emperor.

Although it’s a national holiday, there isn’t the same level of pomp and ceremony you see elsewhere around the world on similar occasions. No grand parades or huge firework displays. In fact apart from some parades and processions to shrines, there are no really big celebration events.

We’re just going to have to make our own fun in that case.

So pour yourself a glass of sake, or, if you prefer a cup of cha, and prepare a little otsumami (a light snack) to get yourself in the mood to celebrate one of the oldest literary traditions in the world. We’re talking seriously old – some of the earliest texts date from the seventh century CE.

Japan’s Literary Heritage

Many scholars consider Japanese literature to be comparable in richness, and volume to English literature. But it’s also rather more diverse; including poetry, novels and drama as well as some genres like diaries and travel accounts that are not as highly esteemed in other countries.

Until 2013 the only Japanese author I’d read was Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day). Some purists might question if he even qualifies since he has spent most of his life in England. But in the absence of anyone else, I’m claiming him.

I’ve been trying to make up for lost time since then and my list of Japanese authors to explore, is ever expanding. I still consider myself to be very much a beginner in this world, particularly compared to the ‘experts’ in Japanese literature like Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza and Tony who blogs at Messenger’s Booker .

5 Of My Favourite Works of Japanese Literature

So I’m not qualified to give you a list of recommended book. I’m simply going to talk about 5 novels by Japanese authors that I’ve loved in recent years.

Yukio Mishima, Japanese literature

After the Banquet  by  Yukio Mishima 

This was my first true venture into Japanese literature. Mishima Yukio is considered one of the greats of modern Japanese fiction; a highly creative and versatile novelist and playwright who became the first Japanese writer generally known abroad. 

After The Banquet is not his most famous novel – that accolade goes to his tetralogy The Sea of Fertility – but it is still highly regarded. The New York Times called it “the biggest and most profound thing Mishima has done so far in an already distinguished career” I found it a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two people whose interests and perspectives seem diametrically opposed. It proved to be a good introduction to one of the key features of Japanese literature – it tends to be enigmatic and absent of the beginning/middle/end structure I’ve been used to in Western literature.

Yoko Ogawa, Japanese literature

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa 

Yoko Ogawa is a prolific author, with more than 40 titles to her name. Sadly only a few (nine I think at the last count) are available in English. The Housekeeper and The Professor, which came out in 2008 , is a slim work of a relationship between a maths professor who suffered brain damage in a traffic accident and his housekeeper, a woman who becomes fascinated by numbers and equations. It beautifully captures the subtlety of relationships across generations and between people of different backgrounds and experience.

Banana Yoshmoto, Japanese literature

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

Relationships are also at the heart of Goodbye Tsugumi, a wonderfully atmospheric novel about two girls who were once close friends. Their lives took them in different directions but they decide to meet once more at a small seaside inn where they spent many of their summers. I wouldn’t say this contains any really big ideas but it was nevertheless a delight to read.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki, Japanese literature

I bought A Tale for the Time Being  at a library book sale, knowing nothing about the author beyond the fact she’d been listed for the Booker Award. It took me quite a few years to get around to reading it but then it became one of my favourite reads in 2017.

It’s a blend of a multitude of ideas and themes from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation. It could have been a bewildering mess but instead Ozeki holds it all together with the aid of a phenomenally engaging narrator. Sixteen year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani pours out her unhappiness in her diary but also relates the love and strength she finds through her relationship with her elderly grandmother, who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan. An absolute delight of a book.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage  by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, Japanese literature

Which brings me up to my most recent Japanese novel.

I’ll hazard a guess that Haruki Murakami is the most famous living Japanese author. In Japan, his novels can sell 1m copies in the week of publication but he also has a global reputation. His novels have been translated into 50 languages, received numerous awards and been on best seller lists worldwide. His name often comes up as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I’ve felt for some time that I should give him a go but the sheer size of some of his novels is off putting. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle for example is around 620 pages, a mere infant compared to 1Q84 whose three volumes come in at more than 1200 pages. Added to this is the fact that his books are frequently described as ‘strange’ and bordering on magical realism – a genre I don’t relate to very well.

But I took the plunge in 2016 because I was assured Norwegian Wood was not magical realism. I loved it. This year I took advantage of Japanese Literature Challenge 2020 to make a return visit to Murakami with Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage .

Yes it’s ambiguous , particularly because some of the mysteries are unresolved, but not so much that it can’t be understood. It’s also full of atmosphere, sometimes darkly so, as the young central character experiences nightmares and dreams as he tries to revisit the past and discover why he was ostracised by his former school friends.

I know I didn’t understood the whole of the novel but I’m beginning to accept that this is par for the course with much of Japanese fiction. So now the big question is whether I can tackle one of his ‘meatier’ novels.

I’ve barely skimmed the surface with this literary tour of Japan. There are scores of Japanese authors and books that deserve a place on this list. What would you put on your list? Which of Murakami’s novels would you recommend I try next?

Exquisite. The Haunting Beauty of Shell by Kristina Olsson

Shell by Kristina Olsson

Whoever selected the title for Kristina Olsson’s superb third novel ,Shell, made an inspired choice.  

The title perfectly captures the fragility of her two protagonists, a Swedish glassmaker and the fiercely independent Australian journalist. Pearl Keogh. But it also has an affinity with the principal design feature of the iconic Sydney Opera House whose construction forms a background to the novel. 

The year is 1965. Construction of the opera house is mired in controversy amid complaints of spiralling costs and aversion to its unusual design. A newly-elected government begins to put pressure on the Danish-born architect Jørn Utzon to cut costs and speed up completion. I had no idea until I read Shell that there was so much controversy surrounding the construction or criticism directed at the architect.

Anti War Feelings

The Opera House project is not the only contentious issue occupying the attention of the media. The country has entered the war in Vietnam and young Australian men are being conscripted to alongside American allies.

Pearl Keogh is ideologically opposed to the war, taking to the streets to voice her opinion in anti-war demonstrations. Though she has a social conscience she also has a more personal reason for her opposition. She has two young brothers who are the right age to be called up. She lost them when they disappeared into the welfare system after their mother died. Her nights are filled with nightmares that she may never find them again.

Her path converges with Axel Lundquist, a young Swedish glassmaker brought to Sydney to create a glass sculpture for the opera house.

A Life Of Gaps

Like Pearl, Lundquist has a gap, an absence, in his life.  He views Utzon as an inspiration and is desperate to meet the man in the flesh. He wants to understand his vision and his inspiration. His desire borders on obsession, taking him on solitary walks around the harbour and to a remote coastal settlement as he follows up on reports of possible sitings. In the absence of a physical meeting with his guru, Lundquist must turn to the building itself for answers.

… what had begun as a mundane assembly of materials – sand, and lime and pebble – was now a thing of beauty, a ceiling of ships. Sitting here was like being underwater, looking up at the hulls of twenty boats floating side by side. Or the corrugations in mudflats left by a departing tide.

Until then he had thought concrete brutal. Used internally it was a material of expedience, easy and cheap. But here it was as tactile as fabric, evocative as wood.

As construction progresses, his appreciation deepens further that this is far more than just a building.

… he closed his eyes. And opened them to a vision: the new building lifting its wings above the land, the water, above all those heads that didn’t know. not yet, what it might say about them. How free they were to become who they were, or could be.

Shell Will Grow On You

This is a novel that takes a little time to fully appreciate. The storyline is discontinuous and I was confused at times by some of the episodes involving Pear. But gradually it hooked me in.

The book really comes alive when we get access to Lundquist’s thought process as he imagines a sculpture matching the beauty and extraordinary characteristics of Utzon’s design creation.

There were some particularly interesting insights on Australian attitudes to its cultural heritage. Lundquist grows to like Sydney, a city whose sandstone buildings look to him ” like a painted set, a picture from a child’s schoolbook”. But he’s disappointed that for all the bright veneer, parks and neat streets, the city has lost its connection to the past, the feeling that:

Beneath this layer of living, this past two hundred years, were the traces of that older civilisation, a thick network of paths and habitation, the tracks of people and animals.

He expands on this later on in the novel:

‘Australians appeared to have no myths of their own, no stories to pass down. He’d read about the myths of indigenous people, the notion of a Dreaming and the intricate stories it comprised. He wondered if Utzon knew these legends, their history in this place. Had he known anything of Aboriginal people when he designed his building? As he sat down and drew shapes that could turn a place sacred? Turn its people poetic: their eyes to a harbour newly revealed by the building, its depths and colours new to them, and surprising. Perhaps that was what the architect was doing here: creating a kind of Dreaming, a shape and structure that would explain these people to themselves. Perhaps the building was just that: a secular bible, a Rosetta stone, a treaty. A story to be handed down. If people would bother to look. If they’d bother to see.’

Kristina Olsson has some exquisite turns of phrase; the Opera House for example is variously described as “a bowl, newly shattered”, “bleached bones against the paling sky” and “as if the architect had once held a shell to his ear, and heard as well as seen the design”. I’ve never visited Sydney myself but Olsson’s precise descriptions of the magnificence of this structure had me desperately hoping I can get there soon.

Though I enjoyed the themes and warmed to the characters, there’s no getting away from the fact that the knock out element of this novel really is the portrayal of that building. It towers over everything: an emerging beauty capable of producing a deep emotional reaction but also suggesting possibilities and potential.

As Lindquist describes it:

Everywhere he looked he saw what Utzon saw. The drama of harbour and horizon, and at night, the star-clotted sky. It held the shape of the possible, of a promise made and waiting to be kept.

I hadn’t heard of Kristina Olsson until I saw Lisa’s blog post on ANZLitLovers’ blog I’ve learned that if Lisa describes a book as ‘sensational’ and her book of the year, then it’s one I definitely should read. Thanks Lisa for giving me such a hauntingly beautiful reading experience.

Shell by Kristina Olsson: Endnotes

Kristina Olsson is an Australian journalist and teacher. Her first novel In One Skin was published  in 2001. She followed this with the biography Kilroy Was Here, which told the story of Debbie Kilroy. In 2010 her novel The China Garden won the Barbara Jefferis Award, which is offered annually for Australian novels which depict women and girls positively, or empower the position of women in society.

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