Category Archives: Australia

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey #Bookerprize

oscar-and-lucinda

It begins in Devon with Christmas pudding plucked from a child’s mouth by his beloved though sternly Evengelical father. It ends with a glass church floating on a barge along a river in the Australian outback. What lies between is a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits: a gangly, nervous clergyman called Oscar Hopkins (nicknamed ‘Odd Bod’)  and a frustrated, unconventional heiress called Lucinda Leplastrier.

Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s Booker prize winning novel from 1988, is a love story in which these two unlikely partners-in-life stumble their way to a relationship. Chance brings them together: a toss of a coin convinces Oscar that God is calling him to be a missionary in New South Wales. On board the ship taking him away from from England he goes to Lucinda’s state-room to hear her confession and discovers their shared passion for gambling. In Lucinda’s cabin the two experience a kind of euphoria, playing poker together for penny stakes. Chance also threatens to drive them apart: to prove his love, Oscar wagers he can transport a glass church built in Lucinda’s glass manufacturing factory through unchartered terrain and erected  on her behalf in a remote bush settlement. It’s a foolish proposition – though breathlessly stunning in appearance,  a ‘crystal-pure bat-winged structure’, its cast-iron framework and glass sheets weigh more than thirty hundredweight. Readers who by this stage of the book is well aware of Oscar’s ineptitude at most things, wouldn’t trust him with such a mission. But Lucinda is a girl in love so she stakes her fortune on his success. The results are unexpected – having set readers on a breadcrumb trail with an unnamed narrator who declares he is the great-grandson of Oscar, Peter Carey springs a surprise about this lineage in the book’s denouement.

Oscar and Lucinda is an episodic novel related in 111 short chapters that chart Oscar’s and Lucinda’s lives with many digressions that introduce a host of minor, odd yet credible, characters. Peter Carey delineates their physical characteristics and their personalities so magnificently that they linger long in the imagination. Oscar himself is a magnificently-drawn character. Scarecrow thin with a triangular face, frizzy red hair “which grew outwards, horizontal like a windblown tree in an Italianate painting…” and a nervous habit which made him unable to ever sit still. He also has a morbid fear of the sea:

It smelt of death to him.  When he thought about this ‘death’, it was not as a single thing you could label with a single word.  It was not a discreet entity.  It fractured and flew apart, it swarmed like fish, splintered like glass.

This fear provides one of the most telling scenes in the novel where, all other attempts to get him up the gangway having failed, his friends and father have to resort to a cage used to load the animals on board for the voyage to Australia . Oscar is clearly a man trapped by his own nature, a theme repeated towards the end of the novel where he is towed up river inside the church.

The man inside the church waved his hands, gestures which appeared … to be mysterious, even magical, but which, inside the crystal furnace of the church, had the simple function of repelling the large and frightening insects which had become imprisoned there.

They flew against the glass in panic. They had the wrong intelligence to grasp the nature of glass. They based against ‘nothing’ as if they were created only to demonstrate to Oscar Hopkins the limitations of his own understanding, his ignorance of God, and that the walls of hell itself might be made of something like this, unimaginable, contradictory, impossible.

Even more vivid for me was the portrait of Mrs Stratton, the indomitable wife of an Anglican vicar, she loves nothing more than a good theological argument. Introduce a question on the merits of the Nicine Creed versus the Athanasian Creed or the nature of divine grace and she’s off ….

She sought the high ground, then abandoned it. She plunged into ditches and trotted proudly across bright green valleys. She set up her question, then knocked it down – she argued that her own question was incorrect. She set alight to it and watched it burn.

Oscar and Lucinda is a novel where the plot and characters get a bit fantastic at times but one where I couldn’t help but get swept along, eagerly wanting to know what happens next. It’s a novel which could frustrate the hell out of people who prefer novels that go from A to B in a direct line and don’t want too many themes and ideas. But for readers who love oddities and  playfulness yet also appreciate a narrative of sensibilities, I hope this will be as much of a joy for them to read as it was for me. This has now gone down as one of my favourites among all the Booker prize winners.

Footnotes

The Book: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was published by Faber and Faber in 1988. My paperback edition is from 1997.

The Author:  Peter Carey was born in Australia. He worked in advertising for many years while trying to build a career as a novelist. He is one of the few people to win the Man Booker Prize twice – with Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang. There is a fascinating interview with him in the Paris Review in which he talks about the frustrations of trying to get his first fiction efforts published and his writing process.

Why I read this book:  This was one of the 12 Booker prize winning titles remaining to be read in my Booker Prize project. I moved it to the top of my list on the recommendations of our experts on authors from ANZ: Whispering Gums and ANZlovers .

 

10 women writers you might not know

world of authors.001I’m always on the look out for writers outside the tradition of the western literary canon. So this article from Signature e-magazine was a welcome change from the usual fare of promotions – there is still a long way to go before literature in translation becomes part of our stable diet unfortunately.

The columnist Kate Schatz has found 10 women writers she thinks deserve more attention because they “have produced or are producing beautiful, necessary works of literature.”  These are women she believes whose work show us worlds, cultures, lives, and truths that need to be known.

The 10 come from Iran, Mexico, Palestine, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan Italy and Great Britain. I’m not convinced that Elena Ferrante needs any more exposure and Helen Oyeyemi surely doesn’t need an introduction? But there are certainly names on this list that are unfamiliar to me even if you all know them well.

Shahrnush Parsipur from Iran appeals, not because her novels weave use fantasy (not one of my favourite genres) but because she has been imprisoned for her writing. Reading her books is one form of protest I can make against her treatment.

The other writer who is calling to me is Doris Pilkington Garimara, an  indigenous writer from Australia whose 1996 novel Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence sounds a remarkable story about a real-life episode in the country’s history – a government-sanctioned removal of mixed-race children from their families. This isn’t something from ancient history but occurred in the 20th century remarkably. I’ve been promising Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Sue at Whispering Gums that I would read more authors from their parts of the world. So this could be my chance (not promising it will happen any time soon though).

I also have a few names on my own list of authors I want to explore. This includes Dalene Matthee from South Africa whose novel  Fiela’s Child which deals with ethnic acceptance I enjoyed last year. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from India who won the Booker prize in 1975 with Heat and Dust which I didn’t rate very highly but I wonder if that was really her best novel? And then of course there are my latest finds (Ok, I know I am late to this party) of Yoko Ogawa whose novella The Housekeeper and the Professor and Amelie Nothomb, who wrote  Fear and Trembling gave me some of the most interesting reading this year.

I could go on….and on…. and on with names but don’t want to overwhelm you but just take a look at some of the recommendations from the bloggers in several countries that have done guest posts about literature from their country.More than enough for you to get your teeth into.

 

Books On My Autumn TBR List

toptentuesdayThis week’s Top Ten Tuesday looks to that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and asks what we’ll be reading this Autumn from our TBR. Making a list of what I’m going to read is always tricky for me since I don’t like planning too far ahead knowing that I am highly unlikely to stick to the list. I prefer the serendipitous approach where I can. Plus  I have (foolishly??) embarked on a university module about children’s literature so will need to devote some reading time to those texts. But in the interests of playing along with the game here’s a list of books that might have a chance of being read in the next few months. I’ve gone for a mixture of Booker prize winners, crime, books in translation and classics.

  1. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. I’ll be reading this as part of my Booker prize project. It won in 1988 (he went on to win the Booker again in 200finklerquestion1 with True History of the Kelly Gang. This will be my first experience of reading Carey’s work but so many people have said this is a great book that I will begin with high
    expectations.
  2. Another from my Booker list is The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson which won in 2001. I know from various comments on this blog that it’s not to everyone’s taste but I dipped into it a few weeks ago just to get a feel for the style and didnt have an issue with what is generically labelled ‘Jewish humour’.
  3. An Elergy For Easterly by Patina Gappah: This is a collection of short stories that was on my #20booksofsummer list but I never got to finish
  4. Frog by Mo Yan. My knowledge of authors from China is pitiful so this is an attempt to remedy the situation,spurred on by the deeply moving experience of reading about the Cultural Revolution last week via Madeleine Thien’s knock out Man Booker 2016 shortlisted title Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Mo Yan won the Nobel literature prize in 2012. Frog,  first published in Chinese in 2009 is ostensibly the life story of the author’s aunt, a midwife, told through a series of letters to a celebrated but unidentified Japanese writer. It covers a broader period than Thien’s novel because it goes back to the Japanese occupation of China, then moves ahead to the victory of the Communist party in 1949, the hunger and violent political upheavals of the first 30 years of communist rule and, finally, the lurch to a peculiarly rampant form of state-directed capitalism. It’s going to be powerful I suspect.
  5. good-womenContinuing on the theme of China, this seems like a good time to finally get around to reading The Good Women of China  by Xue Xinran. She is a British-Chinese journalist currently living London and writing for The GuardianThe Good Women of China is primarily composed of interviews Xinran conducted during her time as a radio broadcaster in China in the 1980s. However, she also details some of her own experiences as a woman in China.
  6. English Music by Peter Ackroyd. This has been on my shelf since 2011.It was recommended when I asked for suggestions of books that would typify England. I ended up reading a different recommendation – Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea   but now think it could be time to revisit Mr Ackroyd.
  7. Candide by Voltaire. This is book number 4 on my woefully neglected list of books for the Classics Club challenge. With less than a year to go I find I’ve read 28 out of the targeted 50 so time to put a spurt on.
  8. Ditto for the Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith which is on the list at number 5 and I did actually start reading it about a year ago but other things intervened. I don’t normally go for overt humour in novels but this sounded wry rather than laugh out loud.
  9. And now it’s time for some crime. Those misty/rainy days are perfect excuses for insulting in something a little dark but not too bloodthirsty. The British Crime Classics imprint sounds the perfect solution to me and thanks to the generosity of Ali at I am the possessor of The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts which is set deep in the English countryside. You can see Ali’s review here and why I’m keen to read this.
  10. 1947 club: This is an initiative by Karen at Kaggsy’s Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book which will run October 10-15. It’s only a few weeks ahead but I still don’t know what I am going to read. Maybe Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin which is based on the true story of a working class husband and wife who, acting alone, became part of the German Resistance. .More on the 1947 club is here

Disclaimers:

The order in which these books appear in my list has no significance at all. I reserve the right to read in whatever sequence I want ….

I equally reserve the right to read only some of them or indeed none of them if something else comes along that exerts a greater pull. 🙂

High Rising by Angela Thirkell [book review]

high-risingHigh Rising, Angela Thirkell’s debut novel in her Barsetshire series, was born out of adversity. Having left her husband in Australia on the pretext of taking a holiday in England, she resorted to writing chiefly through the need for money.  She went on to write a further 28 novels all set in the fictional county created initially by Anthony Trollope.

This is the only Thirkell I will ever read. I wasn’t sure even before opening it that it would be my cup of tea but I’d heard her compared favourably to Barbara Pym to whom I have taken a shine this year. Pym’s writing is however a lot more sharp and insightful than Thirkell’s and it’s that edginess I was missing here. Reading High Rising was an experience about as substantial as eating an enormous meringue;  it looks impressive but once you get your teeth into it, it dissolves into a sugary tasting nothingness.

High Rising rests on the reactions of a female author Laura Morland and her chums in a rural village when a dear friend George Knox (an author of historical biographies) acquires a new secretary. Morland and co decide the secretary Una Grey, or as they nickname her The Incubus, is a schemer who is out to get her claws into George using devious means such as poison pen notes. They set out to rescue their friend from sleepwalking into an inappropriate marriage. In parallel, there are some other budding romances that need to be nurtured and brought to a happy conclusion.

It’s all related in a light, amused tone by a narrator who exudes warmth and tenderness towards the main characters and their little foibles. Most of the time I found the gentle humour cloying though I did enjoy a few laugh aloud moments with the characterisation of Morland’s son Tony. This young boy is a force of super energy, totally absorbed in his own world and his obsession with motor railways.

‘I could get a Great Western model engine for seventeen shillings, but there is a much better LMS one for twenty-five shillings. Which do you think? ‘

‘I should think the Great Western, if it only costs seventeen shillings and the other is twenty-five’

‘Yes, but Mother you dont see. The Great Western would only pull a coal truck and one coach but the LMS would pull three coaches quite easily.’

‘Well what about the LMS one then?’

‘Yes but Mother then I’d have an LMS engine and Great Western coaches. Didn’t yiu know my coaches were all Great Western?’

‘Well Mother considering I was telling yiu all about them I thought you would know. mother which would you say?’

‘Look Tony’ said his mother,mystifying a desire to kill him, ‘there’s Mr Reid’s shop. we shall be home in a minute.’

‘But which do you think Mother? A Great Western to go with the coaches or do you think the LMS?’

And so on.  You get the picture….

His incessant chatting is only one reason why his mother’s patience is tested to the limit:

She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers, partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government, partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit.  She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries.  But not at all.  He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly.  Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.

I’m glad she didn’t break that spirit because as irritating as he is, he at least feels more like a real personality than anyone else in the novel. The rest didn’t engage my attention at all, even his mother with her frequent disastrous moments involving hairpins and the typewriter ribbon and her frustrations with people whose grasp of grammar is fragile, didn’t  raise much of a titter.

I know there are plenty of people who love this kind of novel, and are great fans of Thirkell. They obviously have far greater appreciation of gentle humour than I possess. I’m off in search of something more edgy; a salted caramel brownie rather than a meringue I think.

 

Sunday afternoon blues

Today sees me with a touch of the blues. Instead of revelling in the blue of a summer sky I’m staring out of the conservatory windows at wall to wall grey sky and heavy rain.  So frustrating to be able to look out onto the garden and see all the jobs that need to be done and not be able to get out and do them. My lovely rose bushes look very sad and forlorn after the thunderstorm on Friday. The sweet peas need a bit of propping up so they can climb up the trellis and there are some new perennials I bought last week to fill in gaps in the borders that are still sitting in tubs awaiting planning. Sigh. Sigh and triple Sigh. I really hope this isn’t going to be another one of those wash out summers which are a specialty of dear old Blighty. That never happens in books does it? There, the summer is always perfect. Girls get to wear floaty dresses and sandals, everyone goes off for picnics by the river (such idyllic scene marred only by the discovery of the odd body or two) or linger late into the evening on their patio/terrace/lawn amidst the remnants of the barbecue.

You know, I think those people campaigning for the UK to leave the EU have missed a trick in showing the link between our membership of the EU and the crap summers of recent years. They’ve blamed every other woe to befall UK on our membership so why not rubbish summers? I bet if they were to promise warmer, sunnier times if we voted for an exit, they’d do a roaring trade.

Amid all this doom and gloom I did have one reason to be cheerful this week. Earlier in the month Kim at Reading Matters hosted a giveaway of Richard Flanagan’s back catalogue to mark the fact Vintage Publishing has just repackaged his works for UK readers. Her timing was perfect because I had only recently read his Booker prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North which bowled me over and left me wanting to read more of his work. Amazingly I won. So yesterday morning bright and early the postman greeted with this delightful package of five of his novels: Death of a River GuideThe Sound of One Hand ClappingGould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve FishThe Unknown Terrorist and Wanting.

The delivery didn’t include the plant by the way –  just the books I should emphasise. I tried taking my own picture of the collection but it wasn’t anywhere as good as the one Kim did on her post. My only dilemma now is to decide which of these titles to read first. I’m leaning towards The Sound of One Hand Clapping which Goodreads describes as “A sweeping novel of world war, migration, and the search for new beginnings in a new land…. The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the barbarism of an old world left behind, about the harshness of a new country, and the destiny of those in a land beyond hope who seek to redeem themselves through love.”

Doesn’t that just get your heart fluttering with anticipation?

Maybe instead of just staring at the rain I should cover my windows with pictures of these books. That should deal with the fit of the blues shouldn’t it?

 

 

 

 

Thomas Keneally and The Daughters of Mars

I see that The Times critic considered The Daughters of Mars “unmissable, unforgettable” while The Spectator considered this to be possibly Thomas Keneally’s best novel. Sorry guys but the words “overblown” and “baggy” come more to my mind as I think about my experience of reading this saga of a pair of Australian sisters who serve as nurses on the battlefields of World War 1.

daughtersofmarsThe novel begins in a rural farming community in New South Wales where the Durrance sisters Sally and Naomi  mourn their mother’s death from cancer. Shortly after they  answer their country’s call for volunteer medical staff to come to the aid of soldiers thousands of miles away in Europe. The pair kick their heels for a while in Alexandria, their first experience of the world outside Australia. These opening chapters failed to engage my attention in any meaningful way and it wasn’t until they were posted to the Archimedes, a hospital ship receiving the freshly mutilated from the 1915 Dardanelles campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula, that the book really began to take off.

Keneally memorably portrays the chaos of the floating operating theatre and the stress and exhaustion felt by young women called upon to make rapid judgements of who gets treated, who has to be left to die. The technical detail is often gruesome. At one point Sally removes a bandage to discover “a cavity created by something larger than a bullet – a shard of shrapnel, say – and edging from it an unexpected snake of the stomach-lining named omentum, yellow amidst blood, lacy and frayed, hanging out of the slashed gut”.  At another point, one of the nurses is confronted by a patient “whose wound once unbandaged showed a face that was half steak, and no eyes. The lack of features made his age impossible to guess.” Keneally never holds back from the realism of the injuries sustained and the often inadequate treatment options available to the dedicated medical staff as they face new forms of warfare. The star of this section of the novel is however the set piece of the torpedoing of the Archimedes. As the sisters  cling to rafts awaiting rescue, around them the night is filled with the sound of men and animals screaming for help. “… huge metal shrieks and thumps could be heard within the ship and the unearthly lament of mules and ponies went on”  Later on

…a horse with bulging eyes came swimming up, the sort they might use to pull cannon. It floundered and wallowed … It laboured away and turned to give them one last flash of a panicked, unexpectant eye. Its neck sank and the nostrils tried to hold their place above the sea. It reached a point where its hindquarters began to drag it down backwards. so it went under, whinnying until chocked off.

We’re not even half way through the novel at this point. More blood, disease and drama awaits as the sisters join another theatre of war – the Western Front. From then on, as we trace them through a series of medical staging posts and clearing stations in Normandy and the Somme, that I began to feel the novel’s ability to hold my attention waning rapidly amid the mountain of gangrene, sepsis, amputated limbs, shell shock and gas attacks and the ever widening list of characters.  Compounding the problem was that Keneally seemed to have too many themes going on, too many points he wanted to make. Many times he addresses the issue of courage and the conflict of emotions: the relief at saving a solider followed swiftly by the realisation this is simply a means to  sending him back to the front. Other themes deal with the lack of respect towards the nurses from both orderlies and superiors, who treat them as inferior to the real combatants even though they too come under fire from the enemy. Then of course we get the inevitable critique of the political and military establishment without which it seems no World War 1 novel can be complete.

At times this was a rambling story held together by the evolution of Naomi and Sally Durrance’s reactions and ability to adapt to everything that is thrown at them.  They discover strengths and skills they never realised they possessed, proving resolute and heroic in the face of adversity. What a pity Keneally decides they also have to discover love. Instead of the grand overwhelming passion that would feel more true to their natures, he has them rush around the country to hold hands in cafes and visit museums. Those scenes not only struck a false note they felt superfluous.

Overall, this was an OK reading experience. Extremely evocative in parts and refreshing in dealing with an aspect of World War 1  I knew little about (the role of the Australians). But I would have appreciated it more if Keneally hadn’t tried to over-egg the novel quite so much.

End Notes

Daughters of Mars was published in 2012. It was in the running for several prizes including the  International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award but wasn’t a winner ultimately.

 

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones: a curate’s egg of a novel

guidetoberlin

“A Curate’s Egg” is a phrase that originated in a cartoon published in the satirical magazine Punch in 1895. It means something which was partly good but which was ruined by its bad part. It’s a phrase that describe so well how I felt about A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones.

This novel became available via Net Galley the week after I’d just returned from a holiday in the city. Berlin is a fascinating vibrant twenty first century city but you don’t need t delve too hard to find the remnants of its former dark past. I was curious how  Jones would explore the differences between the present and the past of the German capital.

A Guide to Berlin brings together six travellers – from Rome, New York, Japan and Australia – united by their shared devotion to Nabokov who lived in several houses in the city.  The book is itself a homage to Nabokov – he wrote a short story with the same name when he was 26 years old – and is full of allusions to his work though since I’m not that familiar with his work, I missed most of them.

The six are an odd bunch. They meet once or twice a week in empty rooms and in turn give an individual “speak-memory” in which they each reveal the story of their life from childhood, disclose a personal suffering they’ve experienced and how they found solace in Nabokov’s writing.

The story is told through the eyes of one of those travellers, Cass, an Australian girl who has come to Berlin with aspirations of becoming a writer. She  becomes our guide to the city as she visits its museums and the zoo, travels on the underground, experiences the bitterness of its winter and discovers the Stolperstein; bronze plaques embedded in the pavements to commemorate the Jewish families evicted by the Nazis from each building. Jones captures the essence of the city and its spirit well through precise references to street and district names and the detail of its tram network.

If only the effort that went into the creation of atmosphere and sense of location has been carried through in equal measure to the plot and characterisation. But these are the novel’s two biggest problems. Firstly it’s hard to feel much warmth for Cass. She’s a young girl swept up in the enthusiasm of what she considers an adventure and is excited about her discoveries. But she deadens that excitement by seeking to make sense of everything in terms of a sequence or pattern. Waking one morning, for example, she is thrilled to find the city covered in snow for the first time during her stay. She is initially ecstatic but her desire to understand its meaning robs it of the magic. Snow merely becomes “All those hexagons.” It also explains why she doesn’t seem able to turn any of her experiences into prose. In fact there is never a time when we see her engaged in the writing process, she simply observes.

The rest  of the group are even less interesting. They believe the memories they share of past sufferings are rich in symbolic meaning. But this proves to be their undoing because every story they tell becomes flatter and flatter the more they try to decode each element. A more self indulgent, pretentious and dull bunch it would be hard to find. Half way through the book I decided I’d had enough and went in search of more rewarding company.

 

The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging, as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truth about the world.

This quote comes from an episode in Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles. It could equally describe the way Mark Henshaw’s narrative is constructed.  Each chapter builds on the preceding one, enabling the story to unfold one layer at a time and bring with it ever-deepening insights and fresh revelations.

thesnowkimonoThe novel opens in Paris in 1989. Retired police inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers, where he once served as an intelligence officer. She claims to be his daughter. Back home in his apartment he finds a stranger waiting for him – Tadashi Omura, a former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan who bears a strong resemblance to the Emperor Hirohito. Omura begins to relate the story of his own lost daughter Fumiko and his friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda. As the story of a fractured friendship, lost lovers and orphaned children unfolds, Jovert cannot help reflect on the parallels with his own life which, like Ikeda’s, is built on a lie.

Each strand of the narrative pivots between various characters and locations, in France, Japan and Algeria. It’s written in a slightly off-beat enigmatic style which keeps readers uncertain how everything fits together and how it will all end. Many of the tales use beautiful evocative imagery.

Behind me, the mountain peaks blaze like white teeth in the first rays of the sun. Darkness seeps back into the earth. The grey-tiled rooftops of the village, clustered together like sleeping cattle, begin to surface.

or in another scene:

Banks of cloud the colour of egg white hung low and flat on the horizon.

The Snow Kimono is a meditation on love, loss and betrayal but one whose meaning becomes evident only in stages. Omura counsels Jovert early on in their relationship that if he wants to understand, then he needs to change his perspective. “In Japan we have a saying. If you want to see your life, you have to see it through the eyes of another. But what if what you see is not what you want to know.” Jovert, reminiscing about his career comes to appreciate that the techniques he used in his career would not be sufficient to reveal the truth about life “… life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve. What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together.”

The non-linear structure and the enigmatic nature of the plot alone would make The Snow Kimono a fascinating novel but add the haunting, fluid, lyrical style and the result is the most remarkable novel I’ve read all year. From the first page I was enthralled. By the time I got to the last page I wanted to start all over again to try, like Jovert, to put all those pieces together.

End Notes

Mark Henshaw was born in Canberra, Australia. He published his first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, 26 years ago to huge critical acclaim. Since then he’s published detective novels under the pen-name of J.M.Calder but under his own name, nothing. Why the long silence? An  interview in Sydney Morning Herald may provide the answer. 

The Snow Kimono is published by Text Publishing. They took on the publication after  32 other publishers turned it down. The Snow Kimono went on to win the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2015.

2 disappointments and 1 soaring success

sundaysalonI’ve now read two of the 2015 Booker longlist titles; neither of which I think will be declared the winner.  Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations was a far better novel than Anne Enright’s The Green Road in the sense it actually had a message but both were rather straight-forward stories. No real experimentation with form such as we’ve seen from recent winners like Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton. Maybe the judges are not looking for that especially but I would expect them hone in on a novel that has a unique quality, one that stands out from the crowd in one respect or another. Neither O’Hagan or Enright did that for me. Maybe my next Booker longlist contender A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will be more remarkable. It’s the early favourite for this year’s award but the judges have not always followed the popular vote so I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in the betting odds.

thesnowkimonoFortunately the disappointing experience with those two titles is overshadowed by the book I’m currently reading: The Snow Kimono by the Australian author Mark Henshaw. It’s his first novel in 25 years and was apparently  rejected 32 times before Text Publishing stepped forward. It was a smart move since Henshaw’s novel went on to win the Premier’s award.

From the first page I was enthralled.  The novel begins in Paris in 1989 when a retired police inspector receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter.  Two days later a stranger knocks on his apartment door. Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan, begins his story of his best friend, a brilliant but arrogant writer and the lives of three Japanese women. That summary doesn’t however do any justice to this wonderfully mesmerising tale that unfolds like a puzzle. What a shame the judges didn’t longlist this novel.

Sunday Salon: New Aquisitions

A combination of announcements about some of the leading literary prizes and a some browsing of favourite bloggers’ sites resulted in a bit of a splurge on the book buying front this week.

First up are two authors who came to my notice when they were named last week as finalists for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

The Way of the Women by Marlene van Niekerk

Way of the Women Van Niekerk is a South African author who has been feted in her country in 2011 for her outstanding intellectual contribution to literary arts and culture through her poetry, literature and philosophical work. The Way of the Women was originally titled Agaat but  renamed when the English translation was published. It went on to be shortlisted for the 2007  Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The novel is set on a farm in the Western Cape of South Africa whose aged occupant Milla de Vet lies dying from a  wasting disease. Paralysed she has to depend on another woman Agaat Lourier with whom she has a close but ambiguous relationship forged over half a century of apartheid in South Africa.

Tree of Life by Maryse Conde

Tree of LifeMaryse Conde is a Guadeloupean author also named as a Man Booker International finalist.  I was hoping to get one of her earlier and most acclaimed novels Segu but couldn’t find a reasonably priced and decent quality second hand one. So I settled for Tree of Life instead, reassured by a comment  by Victoria at LitLove on my post about the prize, that she hadn’t been disappointed by any of Conde’s work. In this novel, Conde traces the personal story of how one Guadeloupe family rises from poverty to wealth over several generations. This has a wide range of settings, from Guadeloupe and Harlem, to the slums of  Haiti and the exclusive enclaves of the Parisian upper class.

 The recent announcement of the Folio Prize for 2015 was responsible for my third purchase:  Family Life by Akhill Sharma

Family LifeThe Folio Prize was the latest accolade for Akhill Sharma’s novel — last year it was selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014.  It’s a semi-autobiographical work that documents the young life of Ajay Mishra, a child in a young middle-class family in Delhi. His father decides the family must leave the uncertainty of a country living under emergency rule for the ­prosperity of the West. Settled in New York the family struggle to cope with a personal tragedy and the challenge to their idea of the American Dream.

Prize announcements aside, my final two purchases were prompted by a guest post I published last year about Australian literature. Whispering Gums mentioned many authors but I chose just two to begin with: David Malouf and Patrick White.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf 

Remembering BabylonThis novel won the inaugural IMPAC Award in 1993 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award.  Its the story of an English cabin boy who is cared for by Aborigines when he becomes marooned in the far north of Australia. Sixteen years later me moves back to the world of the Europeans, relatively new settlers who find their new home an alien place. What attracted me to this book was how its themes of living on the edge and of Australia as a fearful land reflect some of the ideas in the course on Australian literature I started a few weeks ago.

 

Voss by Patrick White

VossWhispering Gum called Voss her “absolute standout” novel from her youth, a novel which  “had it all for a teenage girl – outback drama, romance (of a cerebral and spiritual nature), and angst about life and society.” I’m long past my teenage years but this sounds like one of the classics from Down Under. The publishers’ blurb made it sound too good to miss:”Set in nineteenth-century Australia, Voss is the story of the secret passion between an explorer and a naïve young woman. Although they have met only a few times, Voss and Laura are joined by overwhelming, obsessive feelings for each other. Voss sets out to cross the continent, and as hardships, mutiny and betrayal whittle away his power to endure and to lead, his attachment to Laura gradually increases. Laura, waiting in Sydney, moves through the months of separation as if they were a dream and Voss the only reality.”

That little haul should keep me quiet for a while…..

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