littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: My Reading

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

The Booker Long-list: no one is talking about this, by Patricia Lockwood

Another of the Booker long-list, this book had me asking myself, what is a novel? These days we are so influenced by social media, we are used to reading snatches of often witty (or trying to be witty) observations. This book, particularly the first part of it, is made up of just that: short clips that you might call stanzas – indeed, Patricia Lockwood is a poet. I don’t use Twitter, and this is most likely why I didn’t ‘get’ the first part of the book. For example I just don’t get the significance, or amusement of ‘Can a dog be twins?’ Yet I can see that Lockwood writes beautifully – poetically: turning ‘like the shine on a school of fish’.

Patricia Lockwood

It has been suggested that this novel continues to answer a question that Lockwood has addressed on Twitter: How do we write now? For some, the Internet is life – we are addled by it, overwhelmed by it. And Part 1 of the novel shows this. Then, near the end of Part 1 the protagonist (who remains nameless throughout) receives a text from her mother, concerning her sister’s pregnancy: ‘Something has gone wrong’. Elsewhere, Lockwood has presented her family as highly dysfunctional (Priestdaddy, 2017). Her father is a gun-toting, all-American, frequently semi-naked priest who underwent a religious conversion after watching The Exorcist seventy times on a Navy submarine. He was converted to Catholicism and was admitted to the priesthood although he was already married and had a family.

For the rest of the book we see how a family nestles around the sister, who gives birth to a little girl with Proteus Syndrome – thought to be the cause of the deformities of 19th century ‘Elephant Man’, made famous through film and play. This baby is warmly loved and cared for during the six months of her life. The story is still conveyed in snatches, but there is a binding narrative. And I ponder whether that might be the best way to tell such a story. We would expect it to be tragic – but was it? ‘She held the little hand and waited for its wilted pink squeeze, like the handshake of a lily.’

Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro

This book has been longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. The only other book of this highly-regarded author that I’ve read is Remains of the Day. I may be at a disadvantage having not read his other work that ventures into science fiction, particularly Never Let Me Go, indeed in his reivew in The Guardian, Alex Preston suggests that Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant and Klara and the Sun should be read as a trilogy https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/01/klara-and-the-sun-by-kazuo-ishiguro-review-another-masterpiece.

Klara is an android. Specifically she is an AF: an Artificial Friend – in this society, which feels very much like America in, say, thirty years’ time, the well-to-do young people have AFs who are combination sibling, plaything, and nursemaid. The book is written from the viewpoint of Klara, an AF who starts off in a shop on display with other AFs, but is ultimately chosen by Josie, a fragile adolescent.

Klara is powered by the sun, which for her seems to take on a kind of religious significance.  She is a mixture of intelligence (she can read, teach/ impart science) and what was for me unbelievable naivety, believing that the sun lives in a neighbour’s barn and that there is only one polluting machine in the world.

Josie and her mother (always referred to by Klara as ‘the mother’, Klara doesn’t seem to be able to use pronouns) take Klara home to what seems to be a well-to-do perhaps American household. The mother is a professional, who drives off to work each day, divorced from Josie’s father. There is a housekeeper, Melania Housekeeper (a coincidence that this is the name of the former US First Lady?). As I read, in my mind everything was a bit artificial. And why don’t they have a robot to do the housework? The house is in a rural setting – in my mind it was rather like a toy farmhouse and although the other characters were ‘real’ people, I pictured them as rather robotic.

Josie’s illness may have been caused by her being ‘lifted’ – something that seemed to happen to children of a certain class (maybe surgery – it’s unclear) that increases their intelligence. Josie’s friend Rick hasn’t been through this process – he seems quite bright without it (he designs drones), but the reason is most likely that his family is not well-to-do. We later learn that Josie’s sister died, possibly connected to the ‘lifting’ procedure. The main drama is that Josie might die like her sister.

Klara has learned to be devoted and believes that it is her duty to ‘save’ Josie. Klara learns that she is, in fact, being groomed by Josie’s parents (with the help of a scientist, Capaldi) to take on Josie’s characteristics to replace her in the event of her death. Perhaps fortunately, Josie does not die. Is she saved by Klara’s exhortations to the sun?

As Josie gets older, Klara is needed less and is consigned to a utility cupboard. When Josie goes off to college she glibly says, ‘You’ve been just great, Klara’.  That’s it. And Klara ends her days in a rubbish dump, where she is visited by her original store manager and she is in the company of other abandoned AFs – that seems to be what happens. This is acclaimed as a book about love. For me it was more a pessimistic comment on present-day society.

R.V.W. A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams

This biography, originally published six years after the composer’s death, was written by Vaughan Williams’s second wife, Ursula, whom he met in 1938 when his first wife, Adeline, was badly crippled with arthritis. I had, perhaps naively, thought that there might be some revelation of the great composer’s conflict between devotion to Adeline and his passionate feelings for Ursula. No, apart from Ursula’s mention that one day about two years after Adeline’s death, VW asked her to marry him, there is no reference to feelings – it is all very British and very 1950s.

Ursula and Ralph Vaughan Williams

But I did learn how incredibly hard he worked, firstly assiduously collecting British folksongs in the early 1900s. He loved to go on long walks with his very dear friend, composer Gustav Holst. It wasn’t until after World War I that his writing became prolific: symphonies, operas and many different forms of choral and orchestral works. He was 46 by the end of the war, so the bulk of his work was written when he was over the age of 50.

walking in the English countryside

Vaughan Williams also spent a great deal of his time conducting choirs and orchestras all over England and seemed to be much in demand at country music festivals. Although a big heavy man he played tennis. He was often invited to give lectures — all over England and also in the US.

With first wife, Adeline

Vaughan Williams has written extensively about the interpretation and performance of J.S. Bach. He believed that a choir needed to passionately and deeply understand what they were singing about so, for the many English choirs he conducted, the script should be in English. He found the sound of a harpsichord ‘tinny’ and preferred to back it with an organ or piano during recitatives. This was probably before the resurgence of interest in performance on orginal instruments and so he argued that violins and oboes, for example, sounded very different in the 20th century from what they were like in Bach’s time.

This momentum persisted right into his mid-eighties. Ursula describes his death beautifully – as though he just went to sleep: It was all very ordinary, usual and like many other nights had been and we did not guess that before dawn death, not sleep, would claim him.

One of the most superb pieces of music is Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending — for complete contrast listen to his Sinfonia Antartica. I recently heard his Mass in G Minor and realise that there is still a great deal of his music for me to discover.

Jane Austen: Persuasion

I always have a book, usually fiction, on the go. More often than not, it has been written in the last ten years. But, particularly at this time of Coronavirus pandemic, I sometimes feel as though the 21st century world is ‘too much with me’ and it’s refreshing to immerse myself in the fiction of another time. I was delighted to realise that I hadn’t ever read Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion.

For me, the plot was not particularly important and, although this is the only time when Austen’s protagonist, at the ‘elderly’ age of twenty-eight, is ‘mature’, the story was not all that different from other Jane Austen books I have read. I disagree that it is a ‘Cinderella’ story — as described by Penguin Classics: Anne, the point-of-view character/ protagonist is past her first ‘bloom’, but although her father has been unwisely frivolous with his money, she is hardly down and out. She has turned down the proposal of Captain Wentworth on the advice of her family because he is not of sufficiently high social status. When, after eight years absence, he returns from the Napoleonic Wars, wealthier, and therefore, in the eyes of her family, more desirable, it is thought that Anne is probably no longer of interest to him. But we learn, at the end of the novel, that their feelings have been smouldering throughout that long separation.

What intrigued me was the way that Austen uses place only as a back-drop to her writing — there isn’t much description at all. The hard rocks and solid wall of Lyme Regis do indeed provide a fitting setting for poor Louisa’s accident (allowing the opportunity for her to fall in love with Captain Benwick, who reads poetry to her during her convalescence), and the society of Bath seems to clatter on, appropriately supporting confabulations, gossip and liaisons. But the heart of this novel, for me, was the conversation — particularly, the internal dialogue of Anne. Austen also uses a device known as free indirect discourse, where a character’s voice (Anne’s) is mediated by the voice of the author.

For example, early in the book, Anne’s internal dialogue when, for the first time since their engagement was broken, she must see Captain Wentworth, who has returned from fighting in the Napoleonic Wars (Mary is her sister):

“It’s over! it’s over!” she repeated to herself again and again, in nervous gratitude. “The worst is over!”

‘Mary talked, but she could not attend. She had seen him. They had met. They had been once more in the same room.

‘Soon, however, she began to reason with herself, and try to be feeling less. Eight years, almost eight years had passed. since all had been given up. How absurd to be resuming the agitiation which such an interval had banished into distance and indistinctness!’

And near the end of the novel, Anne and Captain Wentworth secretly exchange words and looks, indicating that their feelings for each other are, if anything, stronger than ever. Charles Musgrove politely escorts Anne home, although he has an appointment at a gun shop, when, out of the blue, Captain Wentworth comes into view. By happy coincidence he is able to continue to escort Anne home, enabling Musgrove to go to his appointment. When Anne arrives home:

‘At last Anne was home again, and happier than any one in that house could have conceived. All the surprise and suspense, and every other painful part of the morning dissipated by this conversation, she re-entered the house so happy as to be obliged to find an alloy in some momentary apprehensions of its being impossible to last. An interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of everything dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.’

Other marriages in the book seem to be concerned with property — as indeed many marriages in that time must have been. But in the final chapter Austen outlines what are surely her own views of marriage: ‘When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverence to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition?’

I am sure that there has been much discussion about the title, Persuasion. It is insinuated in conversations throughout the book, or it may be that the maturity gained through the long break in their relationship has strengthened the couple with a kind of universal persuasion — this is no frivolous liaison.

Sally Rooney

I have just discovered Sally Rooney. She’s a very gifted writer still in her twenties, whose work has won numerous awards including longlisting in the Booker Prize. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was published in 2017. She writes quickly and lucidly — she wrote 100,000 words of Conversations with Friends in three months.

There are two things that I especially like about Rooney’s writing: she writes about what she knows, the world of young people at school and university (Trinity College, Dublin) in the 2010s and she writes very strong and therefore memorable characters. As Claire Armitstead has said in The Guardian, what Rooney produces is no ‘callow university novel… her characters are inhabitants of the networked society: they communicate by instant messaging, texts and email, but what it means to them is singular’.

Frances, the protagonist in Conversations with Friends is a student at Dublin University and an aspiring writer. She has a close friendship with Bobbi, indeed, in the past they have been sexual partners. But when the story opens they are good friends who perform spoken word together and are hence a part of the Dublin literary scene — and that’s how Frances becomes involved with older married man (in his mid to late thirties), Nick. Frances is still in her twenties, and so many of these experiences are new to her. They are described candidly and vividly.

How many love stories have I read? Rooney’s Normal People is fresh and profound. It could be about love across a social divide — Marianne is from an unhappy upper middle class family and Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for the family — he and Marianne go to the same school. But it is far more than that. It is a love based on understanding and friendship that weathers other sexual partners and so much more. When, at the end of the story, Connell wins a scholarship to the US (they have both been scholarship students at Trinity), Marianne says, “You should go… I’ll always be here. You know that”.

The characters for both of these novels seem to have grown from a short story written by Rooney: Mr Salary. It is published in a Faber chapbook. The story explores a kind of underpinning love — and it is between Sukie, a young student in her early twenties and Nathan, sixteen years older than her, who as an in-law member of the family provides her with accommodation. They kiss passionately on one occasion but other gestures are tender and caring. Sukie says, “My love for him felt so total and so annihilating that it was often impossible for me to see him clearly at all” [page 20].

Although Rooney’s stories may jump around from a character’s recollections to straight narrative, these aspects entwine in a very readable and natural way. And sometimes a choice of word jumps out as particularly apt, such as at the beginning of Mr Salary when Nathan meets Sukie at the airport, Sukie recounts: “My suitcase was ugly and I was trying to carry it with a degree of irony” [page 1].

Rooney’s latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, is due out in September this year. I am looking forward to it.

Margaret Ann Spence: Joyous Lies

On the front cover of Joyous Lies by Margaret Ann Spence we are told, ‘If plants can protect their young, why can’t humans do the same?’ Then, in an extract before the prologue, Maelle remembers the time she was told of her mother’s ‘accident’, which, as she guessed, turned out to be her mother’s death: ‘Maelle saw the lie in her aunt’s eyes’. Intriguing – children can sense the truth. That kind of saccharine coating is not a protection. And so the scene is set, plunging the reader into a drama with twists and turns of family relationships that provide the essence of this beautifully written book.

The Prologue is written from Maelle’s mother’s point of view and we are with her just before the fatal ‘accident’ at night in a laboratory – questions about her motive for going there and the detail of what happened will lurk, distracting Maelle from her PhD research on plants’ communication.

Most of the book is set in a commune established by Maelle’s grandparents when Neil, her grandfather, was a Vietnam War draft resister. Maelle was about ten years’ old when her mother died. She went to live on the commune with her grandparents and the various others, mainly of their generation, who had kept it together since the 1970s. There we can smell the nourishing meals of freshly-picked vegetables, the bread from the oven, and we can feel the softness of the angora, spun and knitted by Maelle’s grandmother. But there are also knowing looks exchanged, secrets, half-truths.

Most of the story is from the point of view of Maelle as a young adult with a scientific career before her – sometimes we see through the eyes of her grandmother, Johanna, who finds her partner of fifty years, Neil, a ‘grizzled man’ who ‘kept tangling in her mind with his golden youth’. In spite of the communards’ values, much of the time Neil seems to treat Johanna with disdain.

Early in the book Maelle meets Zachary, a young psychiatrist, and there is an instant attraction. When, after a short time, Maelle takes him to the commune to meet her family, Zachary acts strangely and some extraordinary links emerge that shed new light on the mystery of Maelle’s mother’s death and further divert Maelle from her studies, threatening to undo a great deal more than her relationship with Zachary.

In tandem with the mystery prompted by Zachary’s reactions when he visits the commune is another equally compelling plot line. Neil agrees to chic thirty-something Pamela Highbury making a documentary about the commune. This poses a huge threat to Johanna, who wrongly assumes that Pamela is having an affair with Neil. And given that Pamela claims to be interested in ‘documenting human failings’, the project threatens to unravel the essential fabric of the commune. The stiletto-heeled film-maker will disapprove of the ‘feudal power’ under which the women have been engaged in traditional roles such as pottery and dairy, and the men in more strenuous activities.

But the question underpinning Pamela’s investigation is fascinating to the reader (as well as to Pamela’s potential audience): what became of the Hippies? Feeding into this question are matters of coping in old age; working on a commune doesn’t provide retirement benefits. Johanna and Neil aren’t legally married. Does Johanna have rights as his partner? To what extent has the commune genuinely adhered to a non-capitalist way of life?

When, near the end of the book, everyone comes together to view Pamela’s documentary, I was fleetingly reminded of the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when everything comes together in resolution. To the communards’ (and the reader’s) relief, some ‘lies’ are mercifully concealed.

Joyous Lies is superbly crafted: deftly paced and captivating. What is more engaging than a child wanting to find out how and why her mother died? And now that those people of 1970s ‘Flower Power’ are facing old age, it is intriguing to ask, what is life like for them now? Do they still live by those ‘hippy’ ideals? There are strong characters too – I was particularly drawn to Johanna and to Maelle as she pieces together what actually happened to her mother.

Margaret Ann Spence grew up in Melbourne, Australia, but has spent most of her life in the United States where she worked as an award-winning journalist. After some years she moved to Arizona, joined a writers’ group and decided to take up writing fiction. On her website https://www.margaretannspence.com/about.html Margaret says, ‘I write about women and their families, and the secrets that lie beneath’. Margaret’s first novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, was published by The Wild Rose Press Inc in 2017. It won the Romantic Elements Category in the First Coast Romance Writers 2015 Beacon Contest, it was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award and in the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards. Joyous Lies is Margaret’s second novel. Do get hold of a copy of this suspenseful book. Details of how to obtain it are below.

Margaret Ann Spence, Joyous Lies, The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
First Edition, 2021
Trade Paperback ISBN 978-1-5092-3472-1 Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-3473-8 Published in the United States of America.

The book is now available on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Joyous-Lies-Margaret-Ann-Spence/dp/1509234721 and will soon be available from Barnes & Noble and other good book stores.

Books read during 2020

I read the following 39 books during 2020. By ‘read’ I mean for recreational reading. Some of them have already been discussed on these pages, but I’ll outline ten further ‘favourites’ here.

Books read during 2020

Adam Roberts: H.G. Wells A Literary Life
Pat Barker: Life Class
Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come
Helen Garner: Yellow Notebook
Sophie Cunningham: City of Trees
Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré: A Genius in the family: an intimate memoir of Jacqueline du Pré
Laura Thompson: The Six: the lives of the Mitford Sisters
Sulari Gentill: A Testament of Character
Bart van Es: The Cut Out Girl
Cate Haste: Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler
John Boyne: A Ladder to the Sky
E.M. Forster: A Room with a View
Ed Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg: Hitler Victorious
Woody Allen: Apropos of Nothing
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist
Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words
Curtis Sittenfeld: Rodham
Anne Tyler: Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler:  A Spool of Blue Thread
Nicholson Baker: Substitute
Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves
Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast
Mary L. Trump: Too Much and Never Enough
Julia Gillard & Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Women and Leadership
Polly Samson: A Theatre for Dreamers
Tara June Winch: The Yield
Anne Tyler: Redhead by the Side of the Road
Avni Doshi: Burnt Sugar
Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain
Kiley Reid: Such a Fun Age
Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body
Jane Harper: The Survivors
Stuart Kells: The Convent
Brandon Taylor: Real Life
Diane Cook: The New Wilderness
Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet
Kerry Greenwood: Death in Daylesford
Ian McEwan: The Innocent
Craig Campbell & Debra Hayes: Jean Blackburn

Pat Barker: Life Class

Pat Barker writes so well about war. This is the first of the ‘Life Class’ trilogy, which also includes Toby’s Room and Noonday. A lot of books have been set in the First World War – but I haven’t tired of it yet. It was such an utterly brutal catastrophe that has shaped our modern world – and we are still learning of the reality – so much was hidden for so long in the ‘glory’ of war and celebration of victory. In Life Class we find ourselves in the world of English art students – the Slade school of Art. Artists who studied under Henry Tonks – who was also a surgeon. Many young people wanted to be in the war – to join up as soon as possible and go to the front. One young woman artist wanted to try to forget it was going on – she didn’t see the importance of painting it. Most of the novel is from the viewpoint of Paul who is unable to enlist because of his health, but works in Belgium as a nurse, then ambulance driver. Will his love for Elinor Brooke survive?  – they have such different feelings about the war.

Sophie Cunningham City of Trees

Sophie Cunningham’s book, City of Trees, is a collection of essays; memoir, fact –– trees are characters – they tell stories, they evoke emotions. With her we travel across the world, always with trees as a focus but she is always drawn back to Australia. Now, in the 21st century, we are into the ‘withering’. By 2050 we will have lost a large proportion of trees across the globe. Old trees will die, and often there won’t be enough moisture for new ones to survive. But Sophie’s focus is particularly on loving what is here now.

Bart van Es The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es was interviewed at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival. Had I not heard the interview, I might have passed over this book as another Diary of Anne Frank – a Jewish child kept in hiding during WWII in the Netherlands. Quite apart from the difference that Lien, the ‘cut out girl’, is still alive – now 86, there is a connection with Bart van Es’ family. He knew that his grandparents had sheltered a girl during the war, but there was some kind of mystery and it wasn’t talked about. When, after an uncle died in 2014, van Es expressed an interest in tracking down Lien, he was warned that she might not want to talk to members of the family.

But this was not the case. They struck up a friendship which, van Es says, changed his life.

The book is well constructed, flowing from van Es’ present interviewing and researching – his meals with Lien, their walking around Amsterdam (van Es lives in England), to her accounts of her life from the time when, at the age of eight, her mother said ‘You are going to stay somewhere else for a while’ – and she never saw her mother or father again. A couple of months later, the parents were murdered at Auschwitz. 

Lien starts off staying with the van Es family – she seems to quite like it there. But inevitably she must be moved around and much of her time is with a strict protestant family who treat her as a servant and, when she is still only ten or eleven, one member regularly rapes her. Although it seems as though Lien is quite naïve about the war that is going on around her, there is a point where she seems to realise that she will never see her parents again. She lets the two rings they gave her slip through floorboards.

But of course this childhood deprived of real family – and real love – has a devastating effect, which becomes apparent in Lien the adult who can’t cope with a conventional orthodox Jewish marriage although she has children and is comfortably off. She seeks counselling, but years later the fact that she doesn’t have a past, or can’t talk about her past and that she doesn’t really belong in any family leaves her devastated. ‘I ought not to be here’, she says. ‘Ma’ van Es can’t fully comprehend this – she took in children, gave them a good, loving home – she naively can’t appreciate that there was something she could not give the ‘cut out’ Lien. And this inability to understand was the basis of the rift with the family.

Eighty-six year old Lien now seems to lead a full and fulfilling life and at the time of the book being written she had just become involved with a new relationship with a man she had known at primary school. But this book helps to show how the trauma experienced by children such as Lien can never be fully repaired.

E.M. Forster: A Room with a View

What great fortune to find a ‘classic’ book that I hadn’t yet read. I had seen the movie of this novel, made in the 1980s. It is a very good Merchant Ivory film, but it still doesn’t completely capture the essence that has made this one of the greatest novels in the English language. In some ways some of the characters are almost Dickensian – Mr Bebe, the clergyman, for example. The reader fears that Lucy Honeychurch is too tightly entrapped in the Edwardian society in which she lives. We first see her visiting Florence with her stuffy cousin, Charlotte as chaperone – having to behave according to the required code. And yet, the Arno gurgles freely outside Lucy’s window and a tram rushes past, Lucy wants to ride on that tram – both suggest a freedom that she has not yet acquired.

From the Merchant Ivory film

A few days later, when Charlotte has temporarily abandoned her, Lucy experiences something wonderful, yet disturbing. The carriage boy misunderstands her English and escorts her away from the picnic party, picking her a bunch of violets, ‘the world was beautiful and direct’. On a little open terrace, covered with violets – the image reminded me a bit of the birth of Venus – ‘violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue eddying round the tree stems… But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.’ And she is kissed by George – a man untrammelled by pretension – a man who genuinely loves her. Lucy doesn’t know how to cope with this and at first sees his ‘indiscretion’ as an insult. But many months later, after enduring an engagement to the ostentatious Cecil, who despises her own rural upbringing, who is stiff and judgmental, Lucy and George elope and we leave them back in Florence in a warm, golden world of love.

Woody Allen: Apropos of Nothing

What a pleasure to read this autobiography where the voice of Woody Allen comes over just as we know him – putting himself down, making fun of himself – except the accusations by Mia Farrow that he ‘interfered with’ his seven-year-old daughter Dylan, which he convincingly denies. Soon-Yi, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, has been Allen’s wife for 25 years – she was not under age, but a college student, when they started to have an affair. He convinced me of his innocence – but of course, he would. There is more name-dropping and detailed description of making some movies than I needed – but I did realise that there are still a lot of his movies I haven’t seen.  It is an account of his life, as he sees it. It would have been tempting, I expect, to make this book a protestation of his innocence in the sex scandal – but it is far more than that.

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

This is a book of historical fiction written by a social researcher – it is her debut novel. Esme Nicholls absorbs words from a very young age, sitting under a table in the Scriptorium where her father works for Sir James Murray, compiling the OUP New English dictionary with a team of lexicographers. Esme’s mother died when she was a baby – her father is loving and tries to fulfil both parental roles.

As Esme grows up she is given work – errands, and ultimately allowed to make her own contributions. We see how the words selected are those of middle class 19th century gentlemen – she starts to collect words from the lower class women at the covered market. Esme is close to Lizzie – a maid who has looked after her since her earliest days – she sees Lizzie’s perspective on life, where suffragettes are ‘just a lot of rich ladies wanting even more than they already have’.

Esme has a daughter out of wedlock – this is all discreetly handled by her intelligent and perceptive godmother. The girl is adopted by a friend of the godmother and is taken to South Australia where she ultimately continues Esme’s fascination with language.

Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves

I was sorry to finish this book – it is so beautifully written and brilliantly imagined. What if Kate Grenville had found a stash of old letters and notes hidden in the ceiling of Elizabeth Farm – the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur? John Macarthur, as all good Australian primary school children have been taught, was the ‘father’ of the Australian wool industry. Grenville argues – very reasonably – that it was Elizabeth who built up the sheep farming – a skill she had learned from her grandfather.

Macarthur was away from Parramatta for a lot of the time and when he was around he was far more interested in getting promoted than in farming sheep. Kate Grenville did have access to letters written by Elizabeth Macarthur. But in those days, and particularly with a husband like John Macarthur, she would have written them knowing that they would be scrutinised by others, particularly her husband. Elizabeth Macarthur was undoubtedly intelligent, undoubtedly unhappy in her marriage to Macarthur, but like many women of that time she was resigned to it and made the most of it.

Knowing these things, Grenville imagines that she found a box of papers and that she transcribed and edited them. No – the book is fiction. But it is utterly convincing and although it is inevitably a view of that time through 21st century eyes, it may well come close to a truer picture of the life of the early 19th century sheep farmer than the social mores of that time would allow.

Tara June Winch: The Yield

This book won the Miles Franklin award – deservedly. You can’t get much more Australian. Tara June Winch is a First Australian woman and this novel is concerned with the reclaiming of Native Title for a property where Indigenous people have lived for centuries – it is being taken over by a tin mine. But this is far more than an account of a battle between European settlers and the First People.

The book is an intertwining of the story of August, an Indigenous woman in her late twenties who returns home for the burial of her grandfather and encounters the tin mine takeover, the story of an early 20th century missionary, involved with the grandfather’s education – who believed he was doing good. And, most importantly, a dictionary of significant words of the Wiradjuri language of the Gondiwindi people that was compiled by August’s late grandfather that shows the language to be a living language and hence a justification for the Native Title claim. The dictionary underlines the significance of language and the meaning of particular words – for example, ‘yield’ in English refers to taking things from the land, in Wiradjuri, ‘yield’ is things you give to the land.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet four years after the death of his eleven year-old son. This novel is a re-imagining of the son’s death. Stratford and Shakespeare are rarely mentioned, the focus being, particularly Shakespeare’s wife, Anne – here called Agnes. O’Farrell deftly takes us into the Shakespearean world without the disruption that might be caused by using contemporary language. Life in the sixteenth century village of Stratford (barely named) is  convincing – we can smell it and feel it. The twins play games as twins probably do today, swapping clothes and confusing people about which one is Hamnet and which one his sister. But the book is mainly about the grief of losing a child – its impact on the father, the sisters and particularly the mother.

Ian McEwan: The Innocent

This is an early Ian McEwan novel, first published in 1990, but although he’s a favourite author of mine, I hadn’t read it. Leonard Marnham, a British technician,  25 years old in 1955, is sent to Berlin to work on a C.I.A.-M.I.6 surveillance project against the Soviet Union. He is naïve. Hasn’t been overseas before and still lives with his parents. The effects of WWII are still very evident in Berlin – the wall has yet to be constructed but the different sectors dominate life. British and American agents are building a tunnel under the eastern sector of Berlin, in order to tap into Soviet communications systems, and Leonard is engaged in this top secret work. This helps him to grow up quickly – as does his experience with Maria, whom he meets on one of his first nights in Berlin when he is invited out drinking with fellow workers. This leads to his first sexual experience.

After a few weeks of happiness, Leonard discovers that he likes the idea of dominating Maria (he sees himself reliving England’s victory over Germany in the war) and the lovers have a brief separation. Maria has been married before and the drunken, jealous former husband, Otto, hovers at the edge of their relationship. On the night of Leonard and Maria’s engagement party, Otto lets himself into Maria’s flat with his key and hides in the wardrobe of her bedroom. He threatens Maria – almost strangles her. Leonard is not a fighter, but he tackles Otto. In the end, Otto is mortally injured. What to do with the body? The couple end up cutting up the body, wrapping up the pieces and putting them in two suitcases, which Leonard is supposed to take to a locker in a railway station (but the cases don’t quite fit). The detailed description of mutilating the body took up several paragraphs. It reminded me of McEwan’s writing in The Cement Garden. I must confess I had to skip over bits – rather like a gory movie when you look away from the screen. There is the drama of whether Leonard will be discovered – asked to open the suitcases, perhaps. They are cases attached to the surveillance project and, when Leonard is seen by his superior lugging them out to the street, he must accept a lift with them to the project site. They manage to get through security without being opened, although the reader is on tenterhooks that this will happen. Leonard is desperate. The body will start to smell soon. He will be discovered. He decides to divulge the existence of the tunnel project to the Russians. If they attack the project, a dead, mutilated body in suitcases will be of minor interest. In fact, unknown to Leonard, there is another traitor and the Russians invade, but not because of Leonard’s betrayal. Having taken part in the gruesome disposal of Otto, Leonard in particular feels cool towards Maria. He leaves promptly for London and although there is talk of Maria joining him, this never happens. There is hope, at the very end of the book, that in their fifties Leonard and Maria may get together, both now being widowed and having grown-up children.

This book was a gripping read. A well-crafted plot. And the pace, except for dwelling perhaps a little too long on the hacked up dead body, was good.             

Barry Lee Thompson

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