Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Man from Primrose Lane’ by James Renner

manfromprimrose

2012, 400p.

I’m going to be very old-fashioned and curmudgeonly, but I REALLY didn’t like this book.  I really can’t talk very much about it without divulging spoilers.

Oh, alright – just the start then….an old recluse is murdered.  He had been shot in the stomach and his fingers had been cut off and minced in the blender.  He always wore mittens and seemed to have no friends or family.  David Neff, who had written a best-selling true crime book some years earlier is alerted to the case by his publisher, who is concerned that David is spiralling into depression after the apparent suicide of his wife four years earlier.  Who is this old man? Why does he always wear mittens?…..and then you’ll have to read the rest (if you still want to after this review).

The book is a mash-up, I suppose, of several different writing genres.  It’s all very self-referential and tricksy, but at the end of it, that’s just how I felt- tricked. Call me thin-skinned, but having the author jeering at the reader for wanting some sort of resolution at the end is a bit rich.

It is, apparently, going to be made into a film and it will probably work better on the screen than it does on the page.

The book is a one-off.  The blurb on the front brags that ‘you’ve never read anything like this before!’.  Well, that’s for sure and I certainly won’t in the future.  It’s the equivalent of a sight gag: it only works the first time.

My rating: 3/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.

Read because: it was a bookgroup selection with The Ladies Who Say Oooh. In this case, the Ladies Said “Eeewwww”. Boy, I’m glad that I didn’t choose this book!

 

 

‘Housewife Superstar’ by Danielle Wood

housewifesuperstar

2011, 209 p.

I happened to hear Shannon Lush on the radio the other day- she of the handy household hint and stain removal. How Olde Worlde, I thought: household advice on the ‘wireless’! It brought to mind my mother, who listened religiously to Martha Gardner on the radio. My mother was of the class and generation of women for whom ‘housewife’ was a conscious career choice, a source of pride, learning and improvement. There were new products to try and master, old skills to polish and pass on, recipes to experiment with, and new trends and fashions to encompass. The household hint genre of newspaper columns, books and radio and television programs fed right into this view of housework.
I have never heard of Marjorie Bligh, who seems to have been a Tasmanian phenomenon. I guess that each Australian capital city had their own version. Tasmania’s Marjorie Bligh is said to have been the origin of Barry Humphrey’s Edna Everage, before she became a Dame (humph!) and while she was still Norm’s wife, Valmai’s friend and Kenny’s mother. One of the author’s quests in this book was to probe this claim.


Marjorie had three authorial name changes from Marjorie Blackwell to Marjorie Cooper to Marjorie Bligh as she moved through three marriages. It is a sign of her own individual presence and what we would now call her ‘brand’ that her followers recognized her and followed her through these different guises. Her first marriage was an unhappy one ending in divorce, something more devastating and noteworthy then than now, and she was widowed twice. The author, Danielle Wood, treats these marriages with respect but with a clear eye as well. She allows Marjorie to tell her own story, to withhold and to embellish, but it is quite easy for the reader to fill in the silences and to imagine the other perspectives that others in her story might tell.
Marjorie Pearsall was born in 1917 in Ross, in the Tasmanian midlands. The convict architectural heritage of the town would not have been a tourist drawcard at that time. Her father died when Marjorie was three. Marjorie, as she told it in her own autobiographical writings, was always an industrious homebody, making money for the straitened family through running errands for the teachers, cleaning the school room, knitting and sewing. She was a perfectionist and had ‘stickability’ (p. 31). After leaving school she worked as a ‘help’ until she met her first husband Cliff, whom she married in 1938. In a world seemingly untouched by war, they shifted to Campbelltown.

It was there that she set her sights on the Agricultural Show. In 1958 she surpassed her record of the preceding two years, winning prizes in seventy-eight categories. Her passion was the creation of her dream home, Climar (the combination of Cliff and Marjorie’s names), an Art-Deco inspired brick house, now on the Heritage register (for all the good that will do, as Banyule has taught me) and rather oddly dated for its completion date of 1955. My ex-husband’s family lived in a very similar house that was built in the late 30s-early 1940s- perhaps architectural trends took longer to reach Tasmania?  You can see a photo of Climar here (there are many other photographs related to Marjorie Bligh on this site as well.)

There seems to have been a falling out with the Agricultural Show committee in 1958 over the awarding of the W. T. Findlay cup for most points awarded, and she withdrew from exhibitions in 1960, 1961 and 1962 and in this hiatus in her show career she turned to writing. Marjorie Blackwell at Home was her first book, published in 1965. It was to be republished in three editions . In 1973 under the name At Home with Marjorie Cooper, and then again in 1998 as At Home with Marjorie Bligh. The first edition was 310 pages in length, comprising 44 sections covering food, flowers, gardens, children’s parties, pets and stains. “All these things” Marjorie wrote assertively in the foreword “are dear to the heart and the majority of all women.”

“Assertively” is the operative word here. Danielle Wood’s book is sprinkled with the dictates and aphorisms of Marjorie Blackwell/Cooper/Bligh, gleaned from this and her other publications. There’s a rather threatening confidence in the way that Marjorie frames her advice implying that of course you would WANT to prevent the cock from crowing (by placing a lath above his head so that his comb brushes against it) or WANT TO walk to country dances wearing a rubbish bag with two holes cut in it, drawn up to your waist with the pull-tie to protect the hem of your gown from the mud.

They’re small slices of life from another world. Some examples:  try putting sticky tape on your toddler’s hands and watching ‘him’ being delightful as he tries to pull it off; use a slice of beetroot to rub on your cheeks if you run out of rouge; make a nice apron for yourself by sewing together nine men’s ties. Her worldview is that of “wilful waste brings woeful want” (a family aphorism that I grew up with as well) borne not only from straitened circumstances but also almost as a form of resistance to the deluge of manufactured consumerist goods that now engulf us. However, I still struggle to imagine WHY you would want to crochet a cover for a 5 litre icecream container (so handy for transporting small cakes and scones) out of used bread wraps.

Wood (or her publishers) have decided that these excerpts from Marjorie’s writings drawn from her books and autobiographies should be inserted throughout the book. Hence, as well as small break-out boxes on the side of the text, the narrative is interrupted for pages at a time with a lengthy extract. I’m not sure if I liked it or not. I found myself distracted by reading the excerpt, but on the other hand it captured well this nagging, insistent soundtrack of what I perceived as Marjorie’s imperious, bossy narrative voice.

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By the end of Marjorie’s long career, I think that she had become an unwitting parody of herself. Danielle Wood obviously has great affection for her, but is somewhat wary of her as well. In the foreword, she describes her as “formidable”.

 As I write, she is ninety four years old, and almost certainly muttering into her coffee cup about the dire consequences that will befall me if I fail to finish this book before she dies.

She did. The book was published in 2011 and Marjorie died in September 2013.
In her conclusion, Wood reflects on her own ambivalent feelings about Marjorie (p.206)

Though I have spent hundreds of hours with her books and diaries, and talked with her, I still struggle to get a fix on Marjorie. At times on the page, I have found her difficult to warm to. But while she is often self-serving in her explanations of past events, she is also honest enough to supply the facts that allow readers to construct alternative understandings. In person, I have always enjoyed her frankness, humour and generosity. But I have always known, too, that she would have me on toast in a flash if I vexed her or let her down. It has been difficult to reconcile the written Marjorie with the living one, and simultaneously to understand the multiple versions of Marjorie that have manifested during her ninety four years.

The book is lightly written and yet insightful. It’s quite a difficult task to render gently and with respect someone who has, with the passing of time, almost become a spoof. Wood lets Marjorie speak for herself, and lets the reader fill in the silences and omissions. Ironically, with the return to ‘natural’ products and deep-green environmentalism, Marjorie could become an unlikely poster-girl for sustainability, and some may wish that there was an index to this book to locate an unlikely household hint. It is a book which chuckles to itself, but quietly.

awwbadge_2014I’m posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

 

‘The Ghost at the Wedding’ by Shirley Walker

walker_ghost

2009, 247 p

It has often struck me that I am part of a blessed generation that has lived in a time of peace and ,with only a few blips of recession, continued economic growth.  My father was too young to have fought in World War II, my brothers too young for Vietnam, and unless world war breaks out within the next ten years, my son is unlikely to have to fight (and indeed, I find it hard to imagine the scenario that would prompt him to volunteer to do so).  An earlier, blighted generation, however,  experienced World War I,  the Depression and World War II again in what must have seemed an almost never-ending succession of difficulties and disasters. Jessie Walker, who is the subject of this book, stood at the pier to wave off her brothers and their friends in World War I and then sent off her own sons and younger brothers to the Second World War.  It is a war story, but told from the point of view of the women left behind.

The author, Shirley Walker, describes this book as “a memoir of my mother-in-law, Jessie and… an imaginative reconstruction of her family’s truth“. She has used letters, diaries, service records and family documents but she writes “the inner life of each character, especially that of Jessie” from the imagination.  She draws on the existing paintings that Jessie created in later life as a way of reconstructing Jessie’s inner life, but imagines and describes other paintings never made.  The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship is often tentative- it is, after all, the love of the same man in the different guises of son and husband that links them-  and you sense Shirley Walker’s sensitivity to the wider family in writing this book. She has changed some names to protect some family members.

The book opens in 1983 with Jessie in a nursing home, and from here the  chronology of the book skips back and forth.  The author (the daughter in law) identifies herself as “I” and Jessie’s story is told in the third person.  There is limited dialogue. Although Jessie is the focus of the book, it also describes at third-hand or through letters, the war experiences of sons, fathers, nephews and uncles. It is a book very much grounded in Jessie’s life with her husband and sons on the peninsular island that emerges from the waters of the Clarence River, but it traverses much further.

It is a beautifully written, lyrical book.  The men of the Walker family were alive to the sights and sounds around them, and it comes through in Shirley Walker’s retelling. The book comes with high praise from the novelist Alex Millar whose blurb reads:

An unqualified masterpiece.  The most moving account of love and war I’ve ever read.

I must confess, though, that even though I was saddened by the book and the thought of so much death across several generations, I was not moved to tears.  Perhaps it was the author’s restraint in telling another’s story, or perhaps it was the ethical distance that her relationship with the subject imposed on the author, already a published academic.

Like Lisa at ANZ Litlovers, I would have appreciated a family tree, as different generations were named after their forebears.  I’m still a little perplexed by the title, which does not seem to refer to any particular wedding, but perhaps that is intentional.  The story here of one individual woman is a generational story, and as such, one that I hope women yet unborn never have to experience.

We are sure to read many biographies and histories of World War I this year, and next year, the centenary of Gallipoli which has assumed such importance in popular Australian historiography.  There is, among some historians, an uneasiness about the overwhelming prominence given to ANZAC -hence the Honest History website which notes:

There is much more to Australian history than the Anzac tradition; there is much more to our war history than nostalgia and tales of heroism. Honest History is being set up to get those two messages across. Our approach is ‘not only Anzac, but also [many other strands of Australian history]’. We see history as complex with many interwoven, competing evidence-based strands. This sort of history should be the mainstream; hyperinflation of a particular strand is an anachronism.  Editorial and moderation policy, Honest History website

The bookshops already seem to be stuffed full of Big Books of War, generally written by men, many of whom have a journalistic background. I’m thinking Les Carlyon, Peter Fitzsimons etc. and of course, the author of the biggest Big Book of War of them all, Charles Bean.   Where women have written about war, the focus tends to be less on battles and more on the men themselves; less on valour and bravery and more on loss and suffering. (I must confess to not having read Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs, and so I don’t know whether this holds true for her book or not). The Ghost at the Wedding fits into this more person-centred approach that encompasses both the warfront and the homefront, those who stayed behind and those who returned.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I want to post it to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

awwbadge_2014

‘Life after Life’ by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlife

2013, 477 pages.

Spoiler alert

This should be my absolute favourite, top-of-the-list read for 2014, even though the year has just started.  After all, it’s written by Kate Atkinson, an author whose books, across various genres, I really enjoy.  It’s a time travel book and I love those too, even though it feels a little bit adolescent. It has the Sliding Doors/Groundhog Day thing going on as well, which is also good, although my enjoyment of these two movies became a bit rocky when I began thinking “But hold on, how….?”  and questioning the logistics of it all.  In terms of subject matter, much of this book is based during the Blitz, which has attracted me ever since I read Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch.  So, all in all, it should have been a 10 out of 10 winner.

Spoiler alert

The reason why it isn’t a 10/10 winner confronted me on the opening pages.  On November 1930 Ursula enters a German cafe and joins a table laden with cakes where a blonde woman is draped over a fleshy, “softly repellent” man.  She places her handbag under the table and settles amongst the others at the table, then reaches down for a handkerchief from her bag.  She pulls out a gun and shoots the Fuhrer dead. Darkness falls.

This is the first of multiple deaths that Ursula experiences in this book, each marked by the appearance of snow before darkness falls.  She is strangled by her umbilical cord at birth: or she is not.  She catches Spanish influences: or she does not.  She is beaten to death by a brutal husband: or she is not.  She is killed in an air-raid attack during the Blitz: or she is not.  It takes a little while to adjust to these constantly-reset scenarios, and by the end of the book I found myself turning frequently to the table of contents that lists the dates of the different episodes.  Once I’d realized what was happening, I was happy to go along with the premise and there were few times when the death, or not-death, did not seem completely natural or plausible.

With the exception of the Hitler scenario which opened the book, that is.  I found the whole scenario that placed Ursula in Germany unconvincing, and by tying this fictional character to a real-life historical figure Atkinsin rather clumsily and half-heartedly opened up the’ what-if’ historical can of worms. She doesn’t really DO anything with this historical question (which I do enjoy rather guiltily as an historian) and the book as a fictional work doesn’t really need to venture into historiographical waters.

Most of the scenarios are fairly short, until she reaches 1939-40. The Blitz takes up a large proportion of the book and I found myself wishing that Atkinson could get herself out of this narrative quagmire somehow.  She does, with the same sleight of hand as she does elsewhere in the book, and even though I like Blitz stories, I was glad that she could leave them behind eventually.

By the time I finished this fairly lengthy book, I found myself pondering just how well Atkinson had developed Ursula as a character.  The old writing adage is “show, don’t tell” as far as character development is concerned, and certainly the plot-driven structure of this book means that there is a lot of showing, again and again.  Ursula’s responses to these various scenarios all ring true, so Atkinson must have succeeded in creating enough of a character for me, as reader, to judge fidelity against.  This is character revealed through events, and through events that occur to Ursula alone. Do we become ourselves only through the events that befall us, I wonder?   I found myself wishing that the spotlight could shift away from Ursula for a moment, to encompass the views of other characters as well.

And so, my enjoyment of this book that seems at first sight to tick all my boxes, is somewhat alloyed.  I still very much like Kate Atkinson as a writer, and the book brought me a great deal of pleasure.  But a 10 out of 10?  Probably not….

My score:  8.5/10 ???

Read because:  CAE book group selection.  I missed the meeting- I wish I’d been there to discuss it further!

Sourced from:  CAE Bookgroups.

‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’ by Michela Wrong

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2009, 368 p.

Amazon preview here.

Before I went to Kenya my son told me that I had to read this book in order to understand Kenyan society and politics.  Already rather anxious about his two-year stint in Kenya, I was not encouraged to find that a book that I expected to be about politics and history had been catalogued by my library as ‘True Crime’!

“Our turn to eat” refers to a Kenyan view that when you’re in a position to take advantage, you should do so because others have done so before you, and will do so again once you are no longer ascendant.

The book is written by a British journalist who sheltered the Kenyan whistle-blower John Githongo when he turned up on her London doorstep in 2005 after abruptly leaving his position as the Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics.

As the head of Transparency International, Githongo had been appointed to the position by President Kibaki, who had been elected to office on an anti-corruption platform.  He found that  instead of being empowered to challenge corruption, the position muzzled him.  Once safely in England, he blew the whistle on Kenyan corruption, most particularly the Anglo-Leasing Scandal  which, although started by an earlier government, was carried over into the new administration as well.

I was vaguely aware of the 2007 election violence and the international nervousness that it would be repeated during the 2013 election.  (It wasn’t).  Kenya was catapulted in Western consciousness with the Westgate Mall terrorist attack last year. [ John Githongo has written an interesting article about the official response to this attack, which draws on his arguments that are presented in this book.  It's worth a read here.   ]  He argues that underlying the newsworthy, big-headline events Kenyan politics is a longer-running and more disturbing story of corruption that continues almost irrespective of the political party in ascendance at the time.  Because “it’s our turn to eat”, parties that campaigned against corruption in opposition will themselves embark upon it in the sure knowledge that they have only a short window of opportunity to do so.

Although  Githongo is the main character, the book is clearly written by Wrong and is  fast-paced, compelling  and very easy to read.  It provides a wealth of historical and social history about the tribal divisions in Kenyan society which were played out in the  violence that followed the 2007 elections.  It also presents a very pessimistic view of Kenyan politics: that corruption is endemic, and that there is no end in sight.  The fault lies with Western countries as well (particularly Britain) which turn a blind eye to money laundering and facilitate ongoing corruption through their banking, procurement and insurance practices.

As the epilogue explains, the book was boycotted by booksellers which  almost guaranteed its success.  The boycott was circumvented by a PDF version made freely available on the internet and an  NGO which gave away copies of it.  Apparently even today the book is not often found on the open shelves of Kenyan bookshops

After reading this book, I found myself more able to make sense of the politics that dominate the print media and news reports in the Kenyan public sphere.  I must admit, though, that it didn’t really reassure me. Perhaps it’s not the best book for a young ex-pat living in Kenya to recommend to his mum.

‘Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist’

mckibben

272 p. 2013

What turns someone from an interested observer into an activist?  I think that we all have our hot-button triggers, where something enrages us so much that all of a sudden we make the political personal.  For me, it was seeing slimy Alexander Downer talking about the Greater Sunrise oilfield and, smiling sweetly, excusing Australia’s reprehensible behaviour in denying East Timor the riches that would flow from it  with the comment “well, that’s what foreign aid is for, isn’t it?”  At that point, I vowed that I needed to know more about Australia’s actions in the immediate neighbourhood and speak out (however ineffectually).

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, a global environment group that aims to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm.  He is a writer and journalist who has written on environmental issues before.  But with the mooted approval of the KeystoneXL pipeline that would carry tar sand  soil from Alberta Canada to the Gulf for processing, he stepped over the line from writer and commentator to activist.   It would be hard not to, I should imagine, having researched this arrogantly destructive, short-sighted proposal, backed by big business and the geo-political cheersquad for American supremacy.  But, moving beyond emailing and pressuring politicians and doing television interviews, he went one step further. He led a civil disobedience campaign that resulted in him spending three nights in jail, along with many other activists

It’s a rather unusual book.  I found myself wondering if there was an earlier book that I should have read first, because I felt as if I’d been dropped into a conversation half-way through.  However, when I look through the summaries of his books on his Wikipedia entry, I see that many of them are semi-autobiographical, and that many seem to use the overarching structure found in this  book as well: the juxtaposition of the personal and the political.

In this case, the juxtaposition is between the life of his friend Kirk Webster, who keeps bees in Vermont, and his own experience in exerting direct political action over Keystone.   A rather long and laboured metaphor for organization, the bee sections are interesting in their own right as a microcosm of the complex interconnections between life and environment.  The activist sections I found rather less enchanting.  He doesn’t particularly lecture about climate change or environmental degradation but instead describes the change in his life since becoming an activist as well as commentator.  I found myself bridling against the rather syrupy name-dropping, which reminded me a bit of military writing: that need to give every man and woman his due.

I was, I must admit, just a bit disappointed in the book.  I was expecting something punchier, but this is instead a gentler enterprise.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: it was there on the shelf

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘The Honey Guide’ by Richard Crompton

honeyguide

2013, 320 p.

I was standing in a Nairobi bookshop with my son.  “Show me a best-selling Kenyan book” I said, and he handed me this one, all wrapped up in clear cellophane as Kenyan books tend to be.  It’s the debut novel of Richard Crompton, a former BBC journalist and producer who has lived in East Africa for several years.  I think that you can tell his BBC credentials in the writing of this book: he is hoping to create a series of books and I can just see this one as a three-part BBC series in the future.

Mollel is a Masaai policeman based in Nairobi, which immediately marks him out as an outsider. Masaai’s as a rule, do not seek careers in the police force, and Mollel takes no part in the Kikuyu-Luo rivalry that is implicit in Kenyan politics today.  He has his own tragedies, and he has only just returned to the force after a lengthy period of leave.  The case which opens the book involves a prostitute who has suffered a violent recent genital mutilation.  The trail leads to a powerful evangelical church minister, dodgy adoption practices and corruption at the highest levels.

But for me the real appeal of this book is the setting of Nairobi itself.  The action takes place in the days leading up to the 2007 election which led to an estimated 1300  deaths and widespread internal displacement as people fled their homes to what they perceived as safer regions where their own tribal group is more numerous.  In fact, the refugee camps of these internally displaced Kenyans still exist, seven years later.  The action is sited in actual places ( I’ve been to them!) and he captures well the sense of shock as things falling apart in what had, until then, been perceived as an operational-enough democracy.

I’m not usually into police procedurals in the books I read, although I am rather partial to the Friday night crime-fest of BBC programs on the ABC each week.  I think that the writer’s intention in creating a series is a little too blatant here, as he piles on the back-story in this first book.   In a series, this background personal information would be drip-fed in a  more subtle way over multiple episodes and even multiple seasons.   (Although, apparently the manuscript languished in his bottom drawer for many years.  Perhaps he’s only aspired to a series since the Ladies Detective Agency success!) The plot is rather over-egged, I think: just one or two of the multiple plot lines would be sufficient.  But as a creative and narrative response to the 2007 election it is well worth reading, and it has been even more enjoyable reading the book in Nairobi itself.

 

‘Out of Africa’ by Karen Blixen

blixen

1937, 271 p.

I don’t often read the book after I have seen a movie but as I’m in Kenya, it seemed particularly appropriate that I do so in this case.   I saw the movie many, many years ago and can barely remember it, but it seemed to me that the Robert Redford character was rather dominant in it.  Obviously the screen writers were drawing on other source material  in scripting the film, most particularly her letters I expect, because the Denys Finch-Hatton section is minor in the book and certainly not the main theme.  In the book, it is a rather chaste relationship, and she says nothing about Baron Blixen (her husband), adultery or syphilis.  She says little about the white settler Happy Valley set, and is even rather dismissive of them.

I confess that I was struggling a bit at first.  It is very much a book of its time and colonial mindset, and I found myself bridling at her patronizing ethnographic commentary and the see it-shoot it attitude that pervades the book.  She asserts a oneness with Africa and with her workers (most particularly Kamante the cook and Farah her overseer,  but it is shot through with a strong sense of noblesse oblige.  Nonetheless, she is critical of other people’s colonialism, but not her own.  Yet in many ways she comes over as an anti-colonialist that we might want to identify ourselves with today.  She comes to regret her participation in hunting; she lobbies the government for a reserve for the Kikuyu people and she recognizes that both white and native are obsessed with their own worldview and oblivious to the ‘other’:

The tales that white people tell you of their Native servants…If they had been told that they played no more important part in the lives of the Natives than the Natives played in their own lives, they would have been highly indignant and ill at ease… p. 186

There is not really a strong narrative line at all: it is more a series of connected and roughly chronological short stories.  One chapter ‘From an Immigrant’s Notebook’ is exactly that: vignettes that feel a bit like writing exercises that could be taken from a scrapbook.

My reading of this book has been completely shaped by my experiences while reading it.  I had commenced it in the knowledge that we would be visiting Karen Blixen House, and having been there, I have a much greater appreciation of the book.  Her life here centred on her farmhouse and  she describes events within the various rooms and places: writing in her sitting room, meeting with her workers on the round stone tables on the west porch,  working in her kitchen.  I’ve been there now, and can see her there.  But it also reinforces for me the strong sense of possession she proclaimed as colonist – ‘her’ kitchen, ‘her ‘ house, ‘her’ natives.

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The writing  is evocative and beautiful, deeply imbued with a sense of place.

The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world.  There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.  The colours were dry and burnt, like the colours in pottery.  The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers… (p. 15)

However, I must admit that had I not visited the house, I would have closed the book thinking that it had been a rather insipid, dated and slight story.  And I must say that this book and the film seem to have very little connection at all.

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Postscript: I’ve just read an article that compares the book and the film which argues that Blixen’s voice and viewpoint in the film has been twisted completely out of shape to emphasize the Denys Finch-Hatton character as the romantic and anti-colonial lead.  If you can access it (try State Library perhaps), the citation is:

Cooper, Brenda, and David Descutner. ““It had no voice to it”: Sydney Pollack’s film translation of Isak Dinesen’s out of Africa.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 82.3 (1996): 228-250.

 

 

 

‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

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832 p., 2013

832 pages is a lot of reading in anyone’s language.  I have been busy reading The Luminaries every chance I could to avoid a hefty overdue fine at the library. I thought that I had succeeded in avoiding reading any reviews of it before I finished, but there was one that did get through my defences: Jane Sullivan’s review in The Age a fortnight ago.

And there it was-

That’s one of the main objections to the book: that it’s too long.  Others, variously, are that it shouldn’t be written in ponderous Victorian style; that it has too many characters and we don’t care about them; that the astrology framework doesn’t enhance it; and that the story, clever as it is, doesn’t add up to anything much.

Well, that’ s pretty much written my review for me.

I was reminded many times of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White while I was reading this book.  Both are long; both are mysteries; both are about switched identities, and both involve deception for financial gain.  But the difference is that The Woman in White was highly original at the time, and is today viewed by many as the first mystery novel, and the first and finest ‘sensation’ novel.  What a gulf there is between being the first and being merely a pastiche.

For Victorian pastiche this is, complete with convoluted (but always well controlled) sentences, the summary at the beginning of each chapter, and the opening scenes on a dark and stormy night.  As in  most Victorian novels conceived in the serial format of a periodical (think Dickens, Collins…), there is a huge cast of characters who swarm in and out of view,  with false starts and red herrings, and the need for the author to draw breath and offer the occasional recap to the bemused reader lest everything threaten to spiral out of control.

I find myself admiring many things about the book.  Her characterization is excellent, and I found myself becoming engaged by each vignette as actors  gravitated around one another.  Her characters are complex beings,  each with a back story, dreams and regrets.  The conversation is pitch-perfect.

Her description of place is excellent, too. You could see, hear and smell Hokitika, and as an historian of 19th century colonial towns (ah, always an historian!) it rang true in every regard- not a single false note.

The plotting is painstaking and detailed as well. So many characters, so many intersecting motivations and lifestories.

And her control of time is impressive too.  The first long chapter starts on a particular day, the second less-long chapter jumps ahead slightly, etc. etc. with occasional chapters jumping back a year or more as the book progresses until it ends up on the day with which it opened.  Each chapter gets shorter and shorter- somehow mirroring the astrological schema that runs through the book.

But, but, but… how to put it all these vignettes  together? How did this story fit in with that story? Who is this character again?  Had I forgotten this bit of information, or has she only divulged it now, half way through the chapter?  I don’t understand the overarching conceit of the astrological chart that she has superimposed over the story. It was not explained and, to my way of thinking, is not necessary either.

I think that, in spite of my admiration for the parts, I begrudge the length of the whole.  As others have mentioned, the action of the book really picks up at about page 575.  Page 575?  What an act of faith in one’s readers and confidence in one’s abilities as a writer to hold out for so long!  And at the end of it all, the actors take their bow, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

When I finished reading War and Peace, I couldn’t read another fiction book for days.  I felt the same way about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books ( here and here) that preceded this book as Booker Prize winners.  With these books, I had been transported to another world and  whatever book I read immediately after would be diminished after I had been immersed so thoroughly by these big, ambitious books. After reading The Luminaries I feel rather short-changed.  I put so much time into something that, despite its technical brilliance, has very little at its core.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums  was reading it at much the same time and beat me to the end. In spite of some ambivalence, the depth of Catton’s characterization won her over.  Lisa at ANZLitLovers was underwhelmed.

The Guardian review by Kirsty Gunn makes similar observations to what I have written above, but sees that as part of the book’s artistry and brilliance. I’m not convinced.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because: it was sitting all shiny and new on the ‘New Books’ shelf  and because I knew that it had won the Booker.  In other years I’ve tried to read the shortlist before the announcement but The Thesis got in the way this year- so straight to the winner this time.

Mr Muo’s Travelling Couch

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2003 (2005 translation from French), 264p.

Well, that’s 264-pages-reading-time that I’m not going to get back again.

Dai Sijie is the author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and there are similarities between the two books.  Both books revolve around the power of European literature (Balzac in the earlier book; Freud in this book); both refer to the ‘re-education’ policies of the Cultural Revolution; both books involve journeys.  But where there was the theme of innocence and awakening in his first book, the major plotline of this novel is that Mr Muo, recently returned from France where he qualified as a psychoanalyst, needs to find a virgin to offer as a bribe so that his girlfriend can be released from prison.  All rather grubby really.

He speaks (albeit almost casually) of post-Cultural Revolution and post-Tienanmen Square China, and I did find that interesting.  I was wondering when it was going to expand into a full-blown critique, but it remained very subtle- unless it passed completely over my head.  I know very little about Freudianism but the author’s use of it all seemed rather obvious and simplistic.  I am, however, very ready to concede that there might be nuances and critiques of Freud here that may have also passed completely over my head.  (I’m wondering if Freud in Oceania has read it?)   I kept waiting for this book to DO something, but alas it never did.  In fact, I don’t know if anything happened at all or whether it was all a dream after all.

Even more disconcerting were the blurbs front and back that described it as ‘hilarious’ and  ‘amusing charming read with a sharp, satirical edge’ and ‘allusive, intelligent and very funny’.   I obviously have a different sense of humour from such readers.

My rating: 3/10

Read because: it was a bookgroup choice for February (even though I won’t be there for the meeting).  Boy, I’m glad I didn’t choose THIS book!

Sourced from: CAE