littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Richard Powers: Bewilderment

Bewilderment was on the 2022 Booker short list. It describes an intense father and son relationship – they are both still grieving the death of their wife/ mother two years ago. The son, Robin, is described as ‘neurodivergent’ and his school sees him as potentially ‘on the spectrum’, which Theo, his astrobiologist father points out, everyone is on. The book is set in the near future, it might be a second term of Trump.

Ultimately things get bad at Robin’s school and to avoid having him put on medication, Theo decides to home school him. Through university connections (particularly those of his late wife) Theo involves Robin in a project that uses Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef), whereby through neural imaging participants can ‘approximate’ the neural structures of other people’s brains. In this case, Robin’s mother had participated in the project before her death, so Robin absorbs some of the structures of his dead mother’s brain.

Richard Powers

On this program, Robin’s behaviour improves. He is often obsessed with projects to save endangered animals – he spends hours meticulously drawing them. In a naïve nine-year-old way, he protests about endangered animals outside of Congress, when his father has to go to Washington to deliver a paper on his scientific work.

Then the funding for the DecNef project is cut. Robin’s behaviour starts to regress. In desperation, Theo takes Robin on a holiday to the Smoky Mountains, where they had spent a beautiful time around Robin’s ninth birthday. But they can’t stay in the mountains observing wildlife for ever. Hauntingly sadly, Robin’s determination to follow his mother’s example provides a solution.

I found this a beautiful account of a father desperately trying to help his ‘neurodivergent’ son negotiate life – a life in which they both share an intense love of nature and concern for how the behaviour of much of the world’s population is destroying the environment.

Writing in 2021

What is ‘success’ in writing? It would be great to report that in 2021 I’d published another novel, won a few competitions and had some short fiction published. But that’s not the case. I haven’t counted the rejection letters, but there have been a few. A commendation or two, but no prizes. And the main work has involved crafting my second novel. I’ve completed a reasonably polished draft.

I feel comfortable writing historical fiction — I love doing the research. I’m particularly interested in the time just before I was born — a time of black and white photographs — a time experienced by my parents and grandparents. That’s where the second novel is placed. But this year I felt I should move a bit out of my comfort zone. I should write more about what confronts us in the world of the 2020s. To this end I enrolled in several Zoom workshops.

Writing the Environment

The workshop I found most challenging was about ‘Writing the Environment’. Why is it so hard to write, for example, about climate change? Maybe because we are embedded in it. The apocalypse is not necessarily an ‘end’, it can be seen as an ‘uncovering’ — a revelation. With the present pandemic some things are uncovered — made visible — for example, social disadvantage. How can we write about these things? The human perspective can be ‘decentred’ through the perspective of animals. Elsewhere I’ve written about Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country

https://jenniferbryce.net/category/my-reading/

Science Fiction provides a toolbox for writing about the environment. A lot of metaphors are environmental: eg a body of water, burning desire, oceanic feeling, the storm inside, animal desire, as wise as an owl. Try to literalise these metaphors.

Hitchcock’s The Birds

Think of the difference between weirdness and eeriness. Something weird is intrusive. Eeriness has agency, a zombie acting, but there’s ‘nobody at home’. I was first drawn to this idea years ago reading about the mysteries of a disturbed child in Helen Garner’s A Children’s Bach. Hitchcock’s birds have agency — think of the eeriness in that movie. Those of us embedded in Western culture have a limited idea of the scope of agency – the range of entities in agency is very circumscribed. In other cultures landscapes, rivers etc have agency. The ‘light globe’ moment for me was a realisation that these stories can be fairy stories for adults set in the present time.

Compelling Characters and Novel Writing

The previous post in this category outlines some of the advice I gained from Kelly Gardiner. I also attended a workshop through Faber Academy, given by Richard Skinner. https://faberwritingacademy.com.au/writer/richard-skinner/

The main advice I picked up was:

Write from your stomach, not your head or heart. I’m not good at this. Skinner’s message seems to be ‘plough on’. Don’t overthink what you write and don’t doubt what you’re writing. Don’t spend a lot of time tinkering with beautiful expression — I’m bad at this — I draft and redraft instead of moving on!

Another interesting suggestion was: ‘Twist your plot like a screw, don’t hammer it like a nail’. Keep the reader in suspense for as long as possible. And: make your character’s life more difficult — the bigger the price the character has to pay, the better! Some of the very best novels are where the main character pays the ultimate price — eg Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Like other experienced authors, Skinner emphasised the importance of conflict.

Reflecting the advice of Kelly Gardiner, Richard Skinner said, ‘a book is never finished, it’s only abandoned. Characters are like friends: you need to know them as well as you know your best friends’.

The Perfect Pitch

I also attended a workshop offered by the Australian Society of Authors on pitching your book to publishers. In Australia there are opportunities to pitch to publishers without working with an agent. We were given advice on writing a synopsis, an introductory letter and how to offer an ‘elevator pitch’.

Historical Novel Society of Australasia

Reverting to my favoured genre of historical fiction I attended a couple of sessions of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference (all by Zoom). https://hnsa.org.au/

A question that I find compelling when writing about times past is, how do you write about things that today are considered not right, eg racism? The message I gained was, there’s no point in writing if you’re going to white-wash. You have to write about some things that are not okay. But you can avoid offence. Write around the issue if necessary. For example, the speaker doesn’t use ‘the N word’ when writing about slavery, but describes the brutality.

When writing historical fiction, it’s important to try to understand the emotional state of a character: what did the world look like to them? Historical fiction is a made-up story set against a backdrop of real events. Can you manipulate history? Hilary Mantel says you must stick to the facts. But there’s a lot we don’t know. Just be true to the period. History is the foundation. Navigate history rather than manipulate it.

These are just a few of the things I learned in 2021. I probably learned most from reading, from grappling with my own writing and from sharing with my writing group, Elwood Writers http://elwoodwriters.com

Creating Compelling Characters

One of the workshops I attended (by Zoom) in 2021 was run by historical fiction author Kelly Gardiner: Creating Compelling Characters. I have learned that it is nearly always the case that characters drive the narrative of a novel, novella or short story. Characters develop from people we know, people we see in a shop or on a tram. Kelly says, ‘throw them into the deep end, then make it even deeper’!

Kelly introduced us to a questionnaire known as Proust’s parlour game. The game was popularised (though not devised) by Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that, in answering these questions, an individual reveals his or her true nature. Kelly suggested that we pose these questions to our characters. You have to really know your characters — including aspects of them that may not seem relevant to the story you are writing.

Marcel Proust

There are thirty-five questions in the questionnaire. I selected eighteen of them to pose to the characters in the story I am writing.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  2. What is your greatest fear?
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  4. Which living person do you most admire?
  5. What is your greatest extravagance?
  6. What is your current state of mind?
  7. On what occasion do you lie?
  8. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
  9. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  10. What or who is the greatest love or your life?
  11. Which talent would you most like to have?
  12. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  13. What is your most treasured possession?
  14. What do you most value in your friends?
  15. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  16. What is your greatest regret?
  17. How would you like to die?
  18. What is your motto?

Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead

As a prologue to this Booker short-listed novel, Maggie Shipstead quotes from Rilke’s The Book of Hours:

I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world.

I may not complete this last one

but I give myself to it….

Inspiration for the fictitious Marian Graves, obsessed with flying ever since she was a young girl, came when Maggie Shipstead saw the statue of 1930s aviator (then called an aviatrix) Jean Batten at Auckland airport. Batten flew solo from London to New Zealand in the 1930s.

Jean Batten

As I read Great Circle, I had to keep reminding myself that it is a novel — Marian Graves is so determined, her eccentricity is believable.

Early in the novel we learn that in 2014 a film is being made of Marian’s story. The world knows that Marian and her navigator Eddie disappeared somewhere over the Ross ice shelf, heading towards New Zealand to complete Marian’s dream to fly around the world longitudinally — passing over both the north and south poles. Hadley Baxter plays Marian in the 2014 movie. Both she and Marian have similar stories — they didn’t know their parents. Hadley’s parents were both assumed drowned when their plane crashed into one of the Great Lakes. Marian’s mother was assumed drowned in the sinking of the Josephina Eterna, captained by the father. At the time Marian and her twin brother Jamie were only a few months old. The father chooses to leave with them in a lifeboat rather than do the honorable thing and go down with his ship. For this he is gaoled for some years and the twins grow up in Montana barely cared for by a dissolute uncle.

The twins roam through the forests with their lifelong friend Caleb. From a young age Jamie shows talent that he will become a gifted artist. Marian leaves school at fourteen and inadvisably accepts an offer by a wealthy bootlegger to pay for her flying lessons. Initially she senses some kind of love for him. They marry when she is eighteen and he becomes aggressively possessive. Ultimately she manages to escape and much later she hears that he has been killed: was he shot by Caleb?

Caleb and Jamie are always at the centre of Marian’s life. During World War II she finds work delivering planes and gets to fly her dream — a spitfire. She is devastated when she hears that Jamie, who has been working as a war artist, has been killed.

Other reviewers have said that Shipstead deftly weaves the two stories of Marian and Hadley. I found the Hadley story a bit of an intrusion and was impatient to get back to the story of Marian. Nevertheless, it is important that near the beginning of the book Hadley is rehearsing the scene where Marian’s plane plunges into the icy Antarctic waters. We assume, like the rest of the world, that she drowned in 1950. But at the end of the book we learn that there was, in fact, another story.

I was with Marian all the way — understanding her love of being alone up in the clouds and willing her to achieve her ambition to circumnavigate the world. All of these things were so much more challenging for a young woman in the 1930s. Brilliant writing by Maggie Shipstead made this nearly 600 page book indeed a page-turner for me.

Seeing Earth: a Concert!

It’s really going to happen. After waiting almost two years because of Pandemic lockdowns, Stuart Greenbaum’s piece Seeing Earth, written for Ensemble Francaix — and commissioned by me — is to receive its world premiere performance tomorrow evening. The ‘live’ performance will take place in Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre but, if it’s too hard to get there (eg if you live in England) you can tune in through the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall: https://watch.melbournedigitalconcerthall.com/?fbclid=IwAR1JG_fdwIau07P5YTn6EaNutLTl3AwtNC7ZfaiC5F6cWGLNj2L5rjqUWlc#/item/79044

I have mentioned Ensemble Francaix elsewhere on this blog: a fine Melbourne-based chamber trio: Emmanuel Cassimatis – Oboe, Matthew Kneale – Bassoon and Nicholas Young – Piano.

A couple of years ago I decided it was time for me to stop playing oboe. I had two fine instruments, which I would sell. But I wanted the money from the sale to go towards something musical — in a sense, for me, something in memory of my oboes. I love the combination of oboe, bassoon and piano and indeed I had enjoyed playing some of the limited number of compositions for this ensemble — notably by the composer Francaix and also Poulenc. How exciting it would be to add to this repertoire. I approached Ensemble Francaix and they suggested that we ask Stuart Greenbaum whether he would be interested writing a piece for the trio.

The result is Seeing Earth. Stuart Greenbaum is professor of music composition at the University of Melbourne and currently the Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. His work has been performed by both the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has written opera and choral music as well as instrumental. Some of his works suggest a fascination with space and the future. For example, his work 90 Minutes Circling the Earth was named Orchestral Work of the Year at the 2008 Classical Music Awards. Another work, The Year Without a Summer was toured nationally and internationally at the City of London Festival (2011).

The concert includes another world premiere performance: Panvino’s Gluttony for Solo Bassoon. Other works will be Borodin, arranged by Davies – In the Central Steppes of Asia, Britten, Pan from the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for Solo Oboe and Johann Sebastian Bach – Allemande, Courante, Sarabande & Gigue from French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816 (1725) — I assume this will be played by Nicholas on piano.

Do tune in to Melbourne Digital Concert Hall if you possibly can. They are fine players. It will be a great concert.

Booker Prize winner

Today the winner of the Booker prize was announced: Damon Galgut’s The Promise.

https://thebookerprizes.com/the-booker-library/prize-years/2021

Whereas last year, I predicted the winner (Shuggie Bain), this year I was less certain. I haven’t read the complete list of books but there were a couple from the long list that didn’t make the short list that, when I read them earlier this year, I’d thought might be contenders.

Congratulations to South African writer Damon Galgut!

Damon Galgut

I hadn’t read Damon Galgut before and was intrigued by his way of changing point of view even, sometimes, within a sentence. I discovered that this device is very effective in taking you right inside a character.

The book is set in South Africa during the transition out of apartheid – a small farm near Pretoria where a white South African family gradually disintegrates. With each death that occurs over roughly 10-year intervals the house is more decrepit and the family members less purposeful. Before his wife dies (and she is the first to go) the husband promises that the black maid, Salome will be granted the deeds to the house she has occupied over the many years of her faithful service. Amor, the youngest child, overhears this exchange between her parents and every time (with a death) there is discussion of inheritance, she brings up the matter, which is quietly ignored. Ultimately – Amor is the last surviving family member – the deeds can be passed to the elderly Salome. But now they may be worthless, as black Africans are making claim to land that was originally theirs. However, we learn that Amor – who is rather reclusive and out of touch of the family – has been entitled to payments over the years from her father’s business. She has not claimed any of this money and when she is the sole surviving family member she is in a position to hand the considerable amount of money to Salome.

On this blog I’ve discussed two other books that were short listed: A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam and no one is talking about this, by Patricia Lockwood. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, also discussed on this blog, didn’t make it to the short list.

The other book I’ve read that was shortlisted is Nadifa Mohamad’s The Fortune Men. At the time I thought it one of the best Booker short-listed books I had read . The book is based on the actual story of the last man to be hanged in Cardiff Prison, in 1952. He was Mahmood Mattan – a Somali seaman who had married a local Welsh girl and they’d had three boys. She had kicked him out of the marital home for his constant debt – on land, he didn’t have a steady job, he was occasionally lucky with horse-racing. Because of his situation he was a petty thief, but he was not a murderer. And the love between Mahmood and his wife was strong despite her frustration at lack of money. He was a doting father.

Prejudice against people of colour was strong in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff in 1952. When a shopkeeper, Violet Volacki is murdered, evidence is fabricated and Mahmood is arrested and brought to trial. He knows he is innocent and for a long time he assumes that the truth will save him. In prison he reflects a lot on his past life, treasuring memories of his mother and he comes to see that his life is ‘as fragile as a twig underfoot’ and he sees that he could become ‘the devil they always took him for’. But for most of the time he has a flawed confidence in the truth. The best writing is the descriptions of Mahmood’s time in gaol – all written from his viewpoint. The book drags a little with descriptions at the beginning and, given that Mahmood was not the killer, and the book is about him, it is probably not necessary to go in so much detail into the life and family of the murdered woman. Nevertheless, at the end one is confronted with the brutality and finality of capital punishment – particularly in this case where Mahmood was wrongly convicted largely because of the colour of his skin.

Books from the long list that I’ve read are Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace and Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual. I particularly liked the latter two.

I hadn’t read any other work of Rachel Cusk, and it is frustrating to find that there are various assumptions about this. I assume when I pick up a novel I can concentrate on reading it from cover to cover without having to stop and refer to other sources. Naively, I read Second Place from cover to cover – there was some obscurity, but the main irritation was that the narrator kept addressing a person called Jeffers and, within the covers of the novel, we never found out who he was. Ah – but later, I read that Cusk based this book on an account of a time when D.H. Lawrence stayed at an artists’ colony in New Mexico – Jeffers is a poet encountered here. The ‘second place’ is a guest house on the property owned by M, the character I guess you would call the protagonist. M lives on this remote marshy seaside place with her kind and usually compliant second husband, Tony. Her own 21 year-old daughter and boyfriend are also staying there. M seems to like to have artistic people around – for stimulation? And she has invited L, an artist she encountered in Paris and whose work had made a deep impression on her. Is she in love with him? I assumed, at least at first, that it was a kind of love that drove M to go to considerable trouble to invite L, who eventually comes with young, talented and beautiful Brett in tow. L’s presence is both internally and externally disruptive. Sometimes M seems to be tormenting herself. Incidentally there are musings on mother-daughter relationships. In the end, L has a stroke and dies when he’s been re-housed in a Paris hotel. There is a note from L to M that says ‘you were right about quite a few things… I wish we could have lived together sympathetically. Now I can’t see why we couldn’t.’ The book is ‘a tribute’ to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir about D.H. Lawrence at the artists’ colony. I felt that I needed to have read that memoir in order to appreciate this novel.

In A Town Called Solace, Clara, Mrs Elisabeth Orchard and Liam — have each suffered tragedy. We learn very quickly about that of Clara; her rebellious sister Rose, has run away following a row with their mother.

Seven-year-old Clara attends school, but at home she spends every waking moment looking out of the window, willing Rose to return. Her only outlet is feeding Moses, a cat she’s looking after for their neighbour, Mrs Orchard, who is in hospital.

Gradually we learn the story of Mrs Orchard. She and her husband have no living children – she suffered numerous miscarriages and understandably but very inadvisably became attached to Liam, the neighbours’ son who had four sisters. She was ultimately driven to abduct him. Liam loved being with Mrs Orchard but of course was kept well away from her after the abduction – and she had to spend a year incarcerated.

Everything ties together. Mrs Orchard dies and leaves Liam her house, which is next door to Clara’s house – she feeds Mrs Orchard’s cat, Moses. Liam has kept in touch with Mrs Orchard. At the time of the story, his marriage has (perhaps inevitably) broken up. He has travelled to Solace to take possession of Mrs Orchard’s house. His initial intention is to leave by winter, but he’s drifting and at the end of the book it seems likely he will stay on in Solace. The book is very simply written – at first I thought it might be a YA novel. There is vivid description of small town life and a poignant description of realising you are about to die: Mrs Orchard ‘communes’ (though she isn’t religious) with her late husband, addressing him as ‘you’.  It was a quick and easy read but left poignant feelings of loss and love.

Light Perpetual is a beautiful book. Inspired by a plaque Spufford sees when he walks to work at Goldsmiths College that commemorates a 1944 attack on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths. Fifteen children were killed. The book commemorates these children’s ‘lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century’. The idea of writing about what someone might have been like had they lived is not new – but maybe this way of going about it is. The children in Spufford’s book are fictitious – he’s made up their names and the suburb of Bexford, where they grew up. The bomb explodes – seemingly in slow motion – then we are taken into a day in each child’s life 5 years later, 20 years later, 35 years later, 50 years later and finally 65 years later. Death of a Christian believer is described beautifully at the very end when schizophrenic Ben, now confined to palliative care, literally sees the light. And at the end of the book ‘Come, dust’ going into infinity – the same words used at the end of the first chapter that describes the 1944 bomb aftermath. I thought this book a potential winner. But I was wrong.

Dyschronia, by Jennifer Mills

With the COP26 Climate Change Conference still in progress, this seemed an appropriate time to read Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia, published in 2018. This book is not a prediction of the future — indeed, it is about now: the weird world in which we are living at present. The protagonist, Sam, is thought to have dyschronia, a condition where there is confusion about time and this is manifested through migraines, whereby she can see events that will happen. Sam lives in Clapstone, a fictitious town on the Spencer Gulf of South Australia.

For me, the most alarming and memorable scene in the book is where the residents of Clapstone wake up to their dogs barking portentously and find that the sea has vanished. The tide has gone so far out that people can’t see it and the beach is left strewn with smelly carcasses.

Jennifer Mills says that she set out to write about capitalism and indeed, Ed soon comes to town. His background is a bit vague, but he’s worked in finance. He can see potential in using Sam’s extraordinary visions of future events, which definitely have substance when she foresees a series of suicides related to the closing down of the local asphalt refinery where many of the population of Clapstone have been employed.

The structure of the book reinforces Sam’s disturbed perception of time and, by building the narrative on a series of concentric circles, the reader too is thrown into a state where time is fluid. Sam is a kind of Delphic oracle and the people of Clapstone, a Greek chorus, commenting on what is happening.

As well as supporting an asphalt refinery, Clapstone has been a recreational seaside town and has the remnants of a run-down Ferris wheel: Sam can sit in a rusty gondola and survey the town. There is not much room for humour in this book, but I did enjoy that the people of Clapstone designed a giant cuttlefish (when there was sea, cuttlefish migrated to the shores each year) — non Australians won’t appreciate this, but to attract tourism to various towns we have a Giant Pineapple, a Giant Banana, a Giant Lobster and a Giant Koala.

Whilst we are used to thinking forward in a linear way and the notion of dyschronia is disconcerting, throwing the reader into a kind of circular notion of time allayed fears that this would end with impending doom. In one sense, the doom is with us. In another sense, history hasn’t necessarily passed. Near the end of the book, the Greek chorus says:

We chose what to notice, what to think about, believed what we needed to. We prioritised. We were realistic.

We don’t want to think about the past, we want to move forward, time heals all wounds. But now we can’t get rid of it. The past, and the future. They rush together like tributaries, fan out again as a delta, spread through the world like blood.

Laura Jean McKay: The Animals in That Country

This debut novel has won many awards, including the Victorian Prize for Literature and the 2021 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. It is certainly a book of speculative fiction. The title pays homage to a poem by Margaret Atwood.

In Margaret Atwood’s poem the animals ‘have the faces of people’ and the teeth in the bull who is slaughtered ‘are human’. At the end of the poem, the animals ‘have the faces of no-one’. Margaret Atwood, ‘The animals in that country’ from Selected Poems 19.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47791/the-animals-in-that-country

What if a virus could give humans the ability to communicate with animals? This book was published at the time of the Covid pandemic, but that was just coincidence. In this book, ‘zooflu’ is rampaging through the country and one of the main consequences is that infected humans gain an understanding of the communication of nonhuman animals — at first mammals, then birds, then insects. So that the world for these humans is an excruciating buzzing of communication. Words — but not always immediately easy to understand.

The main character Jean is not particularly likeable — rough and feisty from the school of hardknocks. She isn’t sociable and, only when lack of alcohol permits, does she want to love and look after her granddaughter, Kimberley. Jean works as a guide at a wildlife park. She is fond of a particular dingo, Sue. Early in the book she tries to free Sue from a wire fence and Sue bites her hand and throughout the story, the infection in Jean’s hand festers and worsens. The bite by no means destroys the relationship between Jean and Sue. Jean, like everyone else, gets the zooflu and after a while she hears:

Queen.

A whiff of

Queen

Queen

is here

She realises it’s Sue, the dingo. At other times Sue refers to Jean as ‘good cat’. The animals always use the pronoun ‘it’ — not ‘his’, ‘her’, etc — perhaps getting back at the way we often refer to them as ‘it’.

The animals communicate like this — not always from their mouths. This certainly isn’t anthropomorphism. Early in the book — before the pandemic strikes — Jean is warned against her tendency to anthropomorphise: ‘people who anthropomorphise tend not to read the cues, and people who don’t read cues are dangerous’. The animals’ words are spaced out, sometimes like haiku, and printed in bold. So we read them slowly and it’s hard to understand — as it would be. There was lots that I felt I didn’t ‘get’ (although I liked Sue calling birds ‘sky meat’). But if we had zooflu we would be in a state of confusion, trying to figure out what the animals were saying.

Because of the zooflu pandemic, the wildlife park is abandoned. Jean’s son Lee takes Kimberley (his six year-old daughter) down south to find out what whale song really means — something that has intriuged humans for some time; I think of And God Created Great Whales, a symphonic poem by Alan Hovhaness that uses recorded whale song with symphony orchestra creating a haunting effect as low strings shimmer under the loud whale cries. Much of the story is a road trip. Jean takes Sue with her in a campervan in pursuit of Lee and Kimberley. The whales have a strong allure and after driving for many days, Jean does find Lee and Kimberley on a beach with crowds of people. It is too late to recue Lee, who drowns in his pursuit. Kimberley is taken away by police, to be returned to her mother up north — Jean is seen as too irresponsible to care for her.

People with zooflu have different reactions to nonhuman animals. Some are terrified, filled with hatred — they kill their pets and, for example, when Jean is passing through a town she isn’t welcome anywhere because of Sue’s presence. Jean is compassionate — there’s a love between her and Sue. Sometimes they cuddle up together to sleep and Jean is threatened when Sue has the chance to join a dingo pack. At one point on the journey she releases pigs who have been crammed into a truck on their way to be slaughtered and an observation is made that this treatment of nonhuman animals is more cruel than what the Nazis did.

In the end Jean, at the side of the road, is handed a pill by the Army. They have to be sure that she takes it — and can use force if necessary. It reminded me of the suicide pills distributed in On the Beach, to be taken when radiation sickness became unbearable. But this is the opposite — a cure. Jean is forced to take it. A little later she tries to vomit it up, but is unable to and she is already starting to find it hard to understand the communication of birds overhead and what Sue says becomes a bit indistinct.

This book was pervaded by a sense of unease. I was on edge all the time I read it. Can we understand animals at all? What might become of us if we could? And what might become of the world?

Anuk Arudpragasam: A Passage North

Short-listed for the 2021 Booker prize, this book has been described as ‘a meticulous but frustrating meditation on violence and memory’ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jul/15/a-passage-north-by-anuk-arudpragasam-review-a-journey-into-the-trauma-of-war .

For most of it we are on a train journey from Colombo to the very north of Sri Lanka – plenty of time for the main character, Krishan, to ruminate – as well as listening to the clanking wheels and staring out onto the Sri Lankan countryside. In his reminiscences, he describes times when he smokes and meditates. Krishan is Tamil, and the story (or scenes) take place just after the almost 30 years of civil war. Much of this book took me back to poetry of Tagore that I had read at university and, a little inappropriately because Hindu, to the Vedic hymns. If you are old enough to have seen Satyajit Ray’s films, and if you found them tedious, you may soon lose patience with Arudpragasam’s lengthy sentences and paragraphs. I studied Indian philosophy at university and this has provided me with some kind of entree into this ruminant writing.

Krishan’s grandmother’s carer, Rani has died by falling into a well and he is suspicious it may have been suicide, or other foul means. For a moment I thought that this book might be a ‘whodunnit’ – but it is far from this, and in the end the question of the means of Rani’s death is immaterial. Rani’s two children died as a consequence of the civil war.

As he sits on the clanking train, Krishan ponders his relationship with Anjum, whom he still loves although they have parted — one gathers that her activist responsibilities are more important to her than her love for him.

Krishan is travelling to Rani’s funeral — he feels an obligation to attend it — it seemed to me that this was because he was ‘the man’ of the family. He ultimately reaches her village, a place that is foreign to him. After meeting at the crowded funeral home — professional mourners and all, but no-one he knows, he walks with the men to the funeral pyre, some distance away. The place of cremation is near a lake, which reminds Krishan of a documentary film where two young women are excited that they will be sacrificing their lives for the Tamil cause — rather like suicide bombers. This is compared to young women ‘sacrificing’ their lives by going into a Buddhist nunnery.

For Krishan, the funeral pyre is located ‘at the end of the earth’ and I found this part of the book the most illuminating (there may be a pun here with Buddhist thinking, but it is not intended). Once the fire is blazing and before the body starts to burn, it is customary for the observers to move away. Krishan is the last to leave. He gets to the entrance and looks back ‘as the substantiality of a human life was transmuted, like a mirage or hallucination or vision, into thick clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky, thinning as they rose and then disappearing into the evening, a message from this world to another that would never be received’.

Anuk Arudpragasam

There would be Tamil texts, I am sure, but for me the Rigvedic Creation hymn came to mind:

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.

The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

(excerpts translated from Sanskrit by A.L. Basham)

2021 Booker short-list has been announced

Recent posts have indicated that I’ve been reading books that were long-listed for the 2021 Booker prize. Last night the short-list was announced and two of my favourite books so far, Light Perpetual and A Town Called Solace, are not on it. The only short-listed book that I’ve read so far is recently reviewed, no one is talking about this. The other five short-listed books are: A Passage North (which I’ve just started), The Promise, The Fortune Men, Bewilderment and Great Circle. Watch this space!

2021 Booker Short-List

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