This month’s Six Degrees of Separation kicks off with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t yet read but has come highly recommended by a friend who knows more about Australian authors than I do. It’s a crime thriller set in a parched Australian farming community.
The Australian outback was the stamping ground of the legendary Ned Kelly. Whether you view him as a working class hero or an out and out villain, his exploits have proved to be rich material for writers. Peter Carey, another Australian, won the Man Booker Prize with his True History of the Kelly Gang, an is an imaginative reconstruction of Kelly’s life story in his own words. It’s quite a remarkable novel of a man who was in trouble with the law from the age of thirteen, descending from petty crime to robbery and murder. Kelly met his death in 1880 in a shootout despite having fashioned himself a protective iron helmet.
Frank Baum went considerably further than just an iron helmet – he fashioned a character created entirely from metal. The TinMan appeared first in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz but made several appearances in many of the subsequent books in the Oz series. Apparently there was a trend in late nineteenth-century America for advertising and political cartoons to feature male figures made out of various tin pieces. Baum, who was editing a magazine on decorating shop windows when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was reportedly inspired to invent his Tin Man character after he made a similar figure for a shop display.
Baum’s novel was an immediate success but gained even greater popularity once it was made into a film in 1939. I’ll hazard a guess that a large proportion of the millions of people who have watched this film, have no knowledge of the book upon it was based. Still less that this novel, described by the Library of Congress as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” has been interpreted as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. One historian theorised that the Tin Man represented the industrial workers, especially those in the steel industry. Others have claimed the cyclone which sweeps Dorothy to Oz was a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab America into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity.
Since we’re talking political allegory the obvious choice for my next link would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s a bit too obvious. I’m going to play instead with the idea that Baum was writing what’s loosely termed a “state of the nation” novel.
Authors have long used the literary form to examine contemporary society so I’m spoiled for choice. I’m plumping for a novel that was very much a product of the Thatcher years in the UK.
Capital by John Lanchester takes into the heart of London in 2008. It’s a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights. But behind the gleaming office buildings lies an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. In the eyes of the narrator “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.”
Lanchester was not alone in taking a pop at the money men. Anthony Trollope covered similar ground in The Way We Live Now which was inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870s. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He satirised this society in the shape of Augustus Melmotte, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. His arrogance, ruthlessness and depth of corruption are traits we’ve sadly witnessed too many times in the decades since Trollope’s time.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a reminder that these corrupt leaders don’t always get away with their actions; occasionally they are called to account. O’Brien’s novel takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland – is modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic.
Just like the people of Sarajevo, the people of Gaza know what it’s like to live in constant fear of attack. The Book of Gaza is a collection of stories by writers from the territory and published by Comma Press. Reading this anthology you can’t help but admire the resilience shown by the people who inhabit a piece of land 26 miles long and 3 miles wide that has been the subject of hostilities for decades.
And so we reach the end of another round of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we’ve travelled from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a besieged nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As always all the books I mention are ones I have read, though not necessarily reviewed. Creating these chains can be challenging some months but the fun lies in seeing unexpected paths they take, and discovering how other bloggers have gone down vastly different routes. You can follow these on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #6Degrees, or checking out the links at Kate’s blog.
We’re approaching the mid point of the year so what better opportunity to review the last six months and pick my favourite reads to date. Top Ten Tuesday this week in fact is all about the best 10 books of 2017. Of the 30 books I’ve read so far there were eight that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel: I never thought to find myself choosing a sci-fi novel as a favourite read. But this was outstanding. My review noted: The combination of beautiful style of writing and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Not only is this one of my favourites of 2017, it’s high up on my list of favourite Booker Prize winners because of its glorious characters and dazzling language. My review is here
Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Bold and brash, this is a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of the underbelly of Cork in Ireland. But as much as the drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs will have you rolling your eyes in despair, there will be times you can’t help but feel a wave of sympathy for their predicament. As I noted in my review, this is a novel which poses serious questions about salvation and guilt.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather: It took me long enough to get around to reading what is considered one of Cather’s finest novels. It celebrates the pioneering spirit but not in a rose-tinted glasses way; there is plenty of sorrow mixed in with the nostalgia. My review is here
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: “a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits” is how I described this Booker Prize winner in my review. It has some wonderfully surreal scenes including one where a gangly young priest is hoisted aboard a steam ship in a cage normally used for transporting animals.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnett McCrae: a cleverly constructed novel that purports to be a true account of a young Scottish lad accused of three murders. It’s presented in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial so readers get witness statements, a newspaper account and an investigation by a criminologist. My review is here.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: This has to be the most bizarre and disturbing novel I’ve read this year. It begins with a decision by a Korean housewife to stop eating meat and traces her mental and physical decline. My review summed up my reaction: This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: this is quite an extraordinary novel which covers a dazzling array of topics and themes. Zen Buddhism; environmental degredation; bullying; suicide; memory – to name just a few. The result should be a complete mess but it’s a surprisingly mesmerizing story of a Japanese teenager writing a diary to express her feelings of dislocation – that diary is found many years later washed up on a beach in British Colombia. I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet in full.
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.
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 .