Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: My Reading

Ian McEwan: Lessons

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan has admitted in an interview that Lessons, his seventeenth novel, is ‘indulgently long’. What is it about? I can’t really answer that question. A ‘baby boomer’ young man drifts through life – all the significant things that happen: the Suez Crisis, the fall of the Berlin wall, the ending of the ‘cold war’… Is this man a drifter because of the startling experience he had as an adolescent with his piano teacher, causing him to arrive at her doorstep ‘twitchy with eroticised terror’?

When I read about this adolescent experience at the beginning of the novel I thought it a vivid fantasy – it couldn’t really happen. But I was wrong. It did happen to Roland Baines.  Did it mark and shape the rest of his life? According to a lover, much later in life, it ‘rewired’ his brain. It clearly had an effect, but nothing like the dramatic effect I would have expected.

Roland Baines is an ordinary ‘baby boomer’ man – a not very successful poet. Through circumstance, he is a wonderful father to his son, for whom he is the sole parent from when Lawrence is about seven months old. This is because Roland’s wife suddenly and, seemingly, inexplicably leaves. In her note she says, mysteriously, ‘I’ve been living the wrong life’.

I did not forgive her, leaving her little son in order to become a writer – even though she became a very good writer.  There are countless excellent writers who do not totally sever connections with their children. After years of loneliness, Roland does find happiness although, because of the death of the woman he comes to love, it is fairly short-lived.

Stephen Downes: The Handsof Pianists

I have just finished reading Stephen Downes’ The Hands of Pianists. I do think that a big black Steinway on a concert platform looking out onto a sea of mainly unknown faces indeed poses a terrifying challenge for the pianist. The question that intrigues me, however, is whether this situation is more terrifying for concert pianists because they can rarely play on their own instruments — sometimes it would be a case of only a couple of rehearsals to get to know the quirks of the particular piano on which they must perform. Whereas a virtuoso violinist, oboist, trombonist, etc will face the audience holding their own familiar instrument.

But Stephen Downes has written a novel and his protagonist is grappling with overwhelming guilt of having, in an accident, severed the fingers of his sister, who was a talented pianist. And she was ultimately driven to suicide. At times, maybe to try to assuage his guilt, the protagonist seems to suggest that his sister was relieved to escape from her obligation of confronting the concert grand.

William Kappel

It would be interesting to be able to show that world class pianists had committed suicide when the pressure to produce perfection became too much. But Downes doesn’t manage to do this. He starts by referring to the death of Dinu Lipatti, in 1950, from Hodgkin’s Disease. So sad that he was in his early thirties with a huge career ahead of him — but Lipatti’s death doesn’t seem to contribute much to Downes’ suicide theory. William Kappel died tragically in 1953 at the age of thirty-one when his plane from Australia to Los Angeles smashed into the side of a Californian mountain. Downes weakly implies that Kappel may have willed this disaster to happen. Why? What a pianist! I first heard of him in the early 1970s when I was starting out as a teacher. The head of the music department (who was a pianist) had a recording of Kappel playing the Khachaturian concerto. I was transfixed! I remember playing that record over and over again, marvelling at the brilliant rhythmic energy.

Noël Mewton-Wood

One young pianist who did die by suicide was the Australian, Noël Mewton-Wood. I recommend Sonia Orchard’s book about him, The Virtuoso. Orchard’s book describes the strain of high level concert performance, and at the time Mewton-Wood, in London, lived under the additional strain of having to publically suppress his homosexuality, as it was still illegal at the time. Orchard’s book suggests that Mewton-Wood killed himself, desolated by the fact that he had gone out the night his partner, Bill, had appendicitis. Bill’s appendix burst, and he died in hospital some time later. Such a terrible waste. We can never know whether the pressures of virtuosic performance played any part in Mewton-Wood’s suicide, but it seems most unlikely that it was the main provocation.

So I would say that Stephen Downes has an intriguing theory, but he doesn’t manage to support it. And no female concert pianists are mentioned: if it’s the case that no famous female pianists died young and none by suicide, this might be worth mentioning — particularly since the protagonist’s sibling is female. Also, there are a lot of diversions that I found irritating: detailed descriptions of places that don’t really add much to the narrative.

The Hands of Pianists was, for me, an interesting read. It takes us to places (such as piano workshops) where we don’t often have a chance to go. Maybe this is how it came to be nominated for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. But I do have some reservations in recommending it.

The 2022 Booker Prize

2022 Booker winner, Shehan Karunatilaka

The winner of the 2022 Booker Prize was announced last Monday. And this year, I hadn’t read it. It is by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. His second novel, it has been described as ‘a searing, mordantly funny satire set amidst the murderous mahem of … civil war.’ As well as his one other novel, Shehan Karunatilaka has written songs, scripts and stories that have been published in Rolling Stone, GQ and National Geographic.

I read one book that was longlisted and didn’t make it to the shortlist: Leila Mottley: Nightcrawling. What I particularly appreciated was being brought into the life of Kiara Johnson, a 17 year-old black girl living in a poor community – her father now dead (after having spent time in prison) and her mother detained in a rehab facility. The first sentence of the novel is: ‘The swimming pool is filled with dog shit and Dee’s laughter mocks us at dawn.’ There is often no money, no food, yet there is love. Kiara sees it as her responsibility to find money for the rent (which is for ever going up) – her older brother is too involved in non-paying music projects. Even in what we might describe as abject poverty, Kiara takes on the care of 9 year-old Trevor who has been abandoned by a neighbour, who also can’t meet the rent payments. Her love for Trevor is central to the book. It seems that the only way Kiara can raise enough money is by sex work. She is, of course, mercilessly exploited – particularly by the police, who invite her to sex parties then get out of paying her. Should Kiara expose the police or keep her mouth shut? She is a loser in all things legal or concerning money, but her love for people shines through and in the end she finds love with her old girlfriend from school days. As I read, all of my senses were alert to Kiara’s grotty home and her generous love.

The 2022 Booker shortlist was announced in September:

NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwean) Glory (Chatto & Windus, Vintage, Penguin Random House)

Percival Everett (US) The Trees (Influx Press)

Alan Garner (British) Treacle Walker (4th Estate, HarperCollins)

Shehan Karunatilaka (Sri Lankan) The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of Books)

Claire Keegan (Irish) Small Things Like These (Faber)

Elizabeth Strout (US) Oh William! (Viking, Penguin General, Penguin Random House)

Neil MacGregor, Chair of the 2022 judges, says: ‘These six books we believe speak powerfully about important things. Set in different places at different times, they are all about events that in some measure happen everywhere, and concern us all. Each written in English, they demonstrate what an abundance of Englishes there are, how many distinct worlds, real and imaginary, exist in that simple-seeming space, the Anglosphere. ‘Two — Oh, William! and Treacle Walker — are about the inner life, as a young boy and a middleaged woman, in their particular ways, come to a new understanding of who they are and what they might become. The other four books address long national histories of cruelty and injustice, in Sri Lanka and Ireland, Zimbabwe and the United States, and in each case the enduring historical tensions provide the dilemmas in which the characters, like their societies, are put on the rack. ‘Why did we choose these six? ‘In every one, the author uses language not only to tell us what happens, but to create a world which we, outsiders, can enter and inhabit — and not merely by using words from local languages or dialects. NoViolet Bulawayo’s incantatory repetitions induct us all into a Zimbabwean community of memory and expectation, just as Alan Garner’s shamanic obliquities conjure a realm that reason alone could never access. Percival Everett and Shehan Karunatilaka spin fantastical verbal webs of Gothic horror — and humour — that could not be further removed from the hypnotic, hallucinatory clarity of Claire Keegan’s and Elizabeth Strout’s pared-down prose. Most important, all affirm the importance and the power of finding and sharing the truth.’

I didn’t get around to reading Glory or (as mentioned) the book that won.

Of the books I read, my winner would have been a toss up between Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These and Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker. Keegan’s book is short — a novella.

Until 1996, the Catholic Church and the Irish government financed Magdalene Laundries,  where young women were sent if they were destitute, particularly if they became pregnant out of wedlock. They were hidden from the rest of the community. Records of these institutions have been, conveniently, lost, but according to Keegan as many as 30,000 young women may have been locked away in these places – never to have the hope of living a fulfilling life – always made to feel ashamed of their existence. Furlong, the central character in the book, who is now almost 50, had been born out of wedlock when his mother was sixteen – had his mother not been taken in by a wealthy protestant woman, she would most likely have been consigned to one of these laundries and Furlong might not even have survived.

Furlong is leading what seems a good and worthy life. There is enough money to get by – from his coal business – he doesn’t drink excessively, he has a good capable wife and five daughters who are all doing well. What will go wrong? I wondered. Will he take to drink, or fall for a younger woman? No – although those possibilities are present. One day, near Christmas, when delivering coal to the local convent, Furlong comes across a young girl locked in the coal house. When he hands her to the nun in charge, there is pretense at treating her well – poor girl, she needs breakfast, etc… She said to Furlong that she wanted to see her baby and perhaps feed him one more time (he is 14 weeks old). Furlong lingers, but there is nothing much he can do but leave her there. This plays on his conscience and just before Christmas he returns quietly on foot to the convent, checks the coal house and finds the girl locked there, once again. This time he rescues her. It is as though he is rescuing his mother.

I haven’t read Alan Garner before, although he has written a huge number of books. In the front of the book is a short quote by Carlo Revelli: Time is ignorance. How would we experience the world if we could escape time? Teenage Joe, the hero, has extraordinary vision. He wears a patch over his good eye to try to correct the bad one. He’s a bit of a loner (no parents in evidence) and he measures out the days by watching the passing of Noony, the train, through the valley below. With his lazy eye, Joe can see time collapsed: the eternal is now. Sometimes I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland when with his friends, the naked Thin Amren and Treacle Walker, whose face is both old and young, and comic book characters, Joe tackles a world of shatterless mirrors that he can walk through. The book is most beautifully written – so much is said in about 150 pages and the structure is superb: the first sentence is also the last.

Alan Garner

I also enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, although I didn’t see it as a winner. It is part of a series I haven’t read.

Lucy Barton is a successful novelist in her sixties. The book is about Lucy reconnecting with her first husband William – they are both at a crossroads: Lucy’s second husband has just died and William’s third wife has left him. They travel together to Maine in search of a half-sister that William has just learned about. William and Lucy share two grown daughters and the sort of deep friendship that ex-partners are sometimes able to achieve. The style of writing is conversational – what a Guardian review describes as a ‘confiding intimacy’. The novel is also about class in America. Lucy grew up in severe poverty – didn’t even have a TV. And with her marriage to William she is thrust into an upper class way of life with extravagant holidays, where Lucy feels very out of place. The book reflects on the many things in life we do not know until it is too late and indeed the many things we do not really know. The final words are: ‘We are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysterious, is what I mean. This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.’

I enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study and was amused that apparently the main research he did for this book was to read lots of women’s magazines of the 1960s — I remember them well!

‘GMB’, a writer, has become interested in Collins Braithwaite, enfant terrible of the 1960s anti-psychiatry movement. Braithwaite is presented as a very real, if outlandish psychiatrist – a foil to the well-known psychiatrist of the post war years, R.D. Laing, who indeed is a character in this book and an enemy to the fictitious Braithwaite. Among other things, Braithwaite wrote a book titled, Untherapy. GMB is contacted by a Mr Martin Grey, who offers to send him materials relating to his cousin, who was a patient of Braithwaite and who believes that her older sister committed suicide as a result of being a patient of Braithwaite. Under the name Rebecca Smyth, the cousin books herself a consultation with Braithwaite, determined to discover the truth. So the reader considers this ‘case study’ material of six notebooks, just as GMB would – it is presented as though it were authentic source material. The novel is the notebooks. As the notebooks progress, their unnamed narrator becomes ever more confused about her own identity. She wishes she were more like her invented alter ego, and begins to see Rebecca almost literally as a separate person. Collins Braithwaite deteriorates to a point where he can barely function at all and ultimately ends his life. This is far more than a detective story – although there is plenty of ‘investigation’ to consider. I thought it brilliant to put the reader in the place of a writer/ psychologist analysing case study notes.

The book I enjoyed least was Percival Everett’s Trees. He is another author who is new to me. This book has been described as ‘page-turning comic horror’ – a satire about the African American middle class. The small amount I know about the treatment of this American social group draws me away from anything that smacks of ‘comic’. So I probably didn’t fully appreciate what this book is getting at.

We start out in the home of a dysfunctional white family, in the town of Money, Mississippi. We later learn that the somewhat mysterious Granny C instigated a lynching in this town back in 1955, and now her son, Wheat Bryant, is found dead and mutilated with the body of a black man next to him. Another rather clandestine extraordinarily elderly woman, Mamma Z has chronicled lynchings that have taken place since 1913. She outlines these to an academic who visits Money after the situation has escalated to an extraordinary degree – always white men, always mutilated (their genitals cut off), always a dead black or Asian man placed with them. Eerily, murders like these are happening all over the country.  And Mamma Z tells him  that only a fraction of those involved in the lynchings ever served a sentence: ‘no one cared’. And that seems to be the message of this book. The trees (of the title) are the trees used for execution.

Maybe next year I’ll manage to read the complete shortlist.

And now — about a month after the winner was announced, I have read the winner….

Reading Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida proved to be quite a slog for me. I forced myself to finish it because it won this year’s Booker prize. A photographer in the afterlife sets out to expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. My problem was that I didn’t know enough about the Sri Lankan civil wars to appreciate or fully understand this exposure and also, I felt that my lack of appropriate religious background meant that I missed some subtleties in Karunatilaka’s often witty writing about the after life.

Maali is an itinerant photographer who loves his trusted Nikon camera. He’s a gambler in high-stakes poker, a closet gay man and an atheist. At the start of the novel, he wakes up dead. To start with, he doesn’t believe he is dead. And a main driver in the novel is his quest to find out how he died, because he can’t remember dying. There are many jokes – early on (in his ‘first moon’) he has to line up public service style to fill in forms. Maali is a witness to the brutality of the insurrections in Sri Lanka. His ambition is to take photographs that will bring down governments. For example, he has photographed ‘the government minister who looked on while the savages of ’83 torched Tamil homes and slaughtered the occupants’. Another challenge is to find out what has now happened to those photographs – or the negatives. Stuck in the underworld, he has only seven moons – one week – to get in contact with his girlfriend Jaki and her cousin, DD, Maali’s secret boyfriend, persuade them to retrieve the stash of photos, and share them throughout Colombo, in order to expose the horrifically violent nature of the conflict. Maali doesn’t want his contribution as a witness to be consigned to oblivion, which will happen if he doesn’t solve the mystery of the location of his photos before his seven moons have run out. Because after that, he will have no memory. At the end of Maali’s seventh moon, in the company of a Leopard, he will be reborn by jumping into a river. The final words of the novel are: ‘And when you jump you will know three things. That the brightness of the light will force you to open your eyes wider. That you will choose the same drink and it will take you somewhere knew. And that, when you get there, you will have forgotten all of the above.’

Childless, by Sian Prior

I was attracted to Sian Prior’s memoir for two main reasons. My experience is a little different from hers (Does anyone have exactly the same experience?), but, like Sian, I have no living childen. In my case, I gave birth three times to premature boys. Secondly, I learned oboe from Sian’s mother, Margot, not long after the tragic time when Sian’s father drowned rescuing two young people in the surf. I had oboe lessons at their home and the children must have been young toddlers — there were often toys scattered on the living room floor and I used to think how desperately awful it must have been for the young mother and her three children — but I was too awkward and clumsy to say anything or even to acknowledge their situation.

Margot Prior
Sian Prior

Like so many of us, Sian assumed she would have children one day. Her descriptions of her relationships with other people’s children suggest she would have been a wonderful mother. She questioned her desire for motherhood in a world we are destroying through climate change — but her drive to have children eclipsed her perhaps more rational beliefs.

Remarkably, this is not a book of anger. And it is not a book of asking, why me? Sian investigated every possibiity. She weathered the heartbreak of miscarriages of babies conceived with her loving partner, and later, stoically, perhaps, she undertook IVF solo when her new partner had a large family of children already and didn’t want to produce any more.

Intertwined with Sian’s story of trying to have babies is her trying to know her father who drowned when she was only three months old, and wanting to produce a child who would carry some of his genes. She shares various traits: her father’s blond hair, his love of music… how wonderful to perpetuate these things through children.

Each time Sian loses a child is unique. Each time is a particular loss. I remember when I wrote about my experience a friend said ‘That’s probably helped you get over it.’ I expect everyone who has suffered a miscarriage or desperately wanted to conceive would agree, it is not something you ‘get over’. I still find it very difficult to answer the question ‘And do you have children?’

Sian has a special affinity with the sea. Surely it brings her closer to her father. Maybe now that there is no hope of becoming a mother, life has become bittersweet. At the end of the book, we leave her in the sea catching the waves: ‘I catch wave after wave, tasting my fifty years there in the sea. Clean, neutral, bittersweet.’

Kelly Rimmer: The German Wife

Kelly Rimmer was inspired to write The German Wife after a visit to the Parkes Radio Telescope Observatory, New South Wales. In the back of her book she is quoted: ‘I visited an exhibit about the US space program.  I saw how there was a line that said how German and US scientists worked together starting in 1950 in Huntsville Alabama to help the space program. I was determined to learn how that could happen and wanted to know about Operation Paperclip.’ Operation Paperclip was a controversial secret US intelligence program that employed former members of the Nazi party (some, members of the SS) at the end of World War II. Instead of going to trial at Nürnberg, Germany, where former Nazi leaders were indicted and tried as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal, these men were quietly transported to the US where their experience and skills could be put to use building the Space Program.

Operation Paperclip

In Germany, these scientists had been working on ‘rocketry’ – the rockets they designed for Hitler were used as weapons. The design of these ‘weapons’ had been possible before the declaration of war because of an omission in the Treaty of Versailles, which forbad the development of weapons, but did not mention ‘rockets’.

Probably the most famous of these Nazi scientists is Wernher von Braun – whom I am ashamed to say, I mainly remember in the comedy Dr Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers.

Kelly Rimmer has developed a character, Jürgen Rhodes, who in some ways resembles von Braun, although the story of his wife and family life is fiction. By using this device, Rimmer can draw us into the situation that may have been faced by Nazi families and can show the degree to which they may have been compelled to carry out the instructions of the Führer.

Records tell us that at the Nürnberg trials, many of the Nazi officials pleaded that, in relation to the abominable crimes they were accused of, they were only carrying out instructions. I have always thought this unspeakably weak. On their shoulders is what is probably the worst genocide known to humanity. They witnessed the killings, the cruelty, the starvation… Kelly Rimmer’s book gives us a moment when we can experience what it may have been like to be under the pressure of the Nazi regime – watching as your children were brainwashed at school, believing that they would be orphaned if you stepped out of line. Indeed, in the last days of the war, Jurgen and Sofie’s son, Georg, an ardent ‘Hitler Youth’ is killed, ‘defending the Fatherland’, at the age of fifteen.

My view, at the end of the book, is that Jürgen and Sofie Rhodes were surely intelligent enough to sense that, given their beliefs were contrary to the Nazi party, they should have left Germany in the mid-1930s. But they didn’t. By 1938 it would have been practically impossible to leave. Sofie was used to an almost aristocratic lifestyle and Jürgen was comfortable only in academia.

1930s Dustbowl

I found this book a compelling read. The heading of each short chapter outlines which character’s point-of-view we will have, the year and the place. We move deftly, but not necessarily chronologically, from Berlin in 1930 through to Huntsville Alabama 1951. We learn essential background details of the characters: the 1930s Dustbowl experience of Lizzie and Henry who will become key characters in the Huntsville population that initially detests the Germans who have come to work in their town, particularly Jürgen and Sofie because rumour has it that Jürgen was a member of the SS. Henry does service in World War II and sees evidence of the Nazi atrocities – his experience summed up by the US authorities of the time as ‘combat fatigue’.

Does everything end too happily? Maybe more should be made of the terrible memories that will haunt Jürgen and Sofie all of their lives. Is that sufficient punishment for putting self and family first – going against what one really believes to be right?

When von Braun died in 1977, it seemed that his Nazi background had been forgotten. President Carter eulogised Dr. von Braun as ‘a man of bold vision’ and said:

‘To millions of Americans, Wernher von Braun’s name was inextricably linked to our exploration of space and to the creative application of technology. Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work. We will continue to profit from his example.’ [Wikipedia]

Kelly Rimmer’s book encouraged me to stop and contemplate what it must have been like trapped under the Nazi regime and forced to act against one’s beliefs. I don’t think that my views have changed, but I appreciated being dropped into the lives of Jürgen and Sofie and being put in a position where I had to try to take stock of just what that experience was like.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger

It’s unlikely that you’ve read many books by Ulrich Boschwitz. He died in 1942 when he was twenty-seven years old. The Passenger, which he wrote partly during his time interned in Hay New South Wales as an enemy alien — along with the ‘Dunera Boys’, has been revived recently. He had sent the manuscript to his mother, interned in England, saying further revisions were needed. The book was published in England in 1939, to no great acclaim. But now, well after World War II and the Holocaust, there is a great deal more interest.

Boschwitz was born in Berlin. His father, who died when Ulrich was a baby, was Jewish but his mother was not. Ulrich left Germany in 1935 for Norway, and then to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. After internment when war broke out — and being shipped to Australia — he was permitted to return to England, presumably to rejoin his mother. But his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and all passengers were killed.

Ulrich Boschwitz

The Passenger is set in Berlin in 1938, just after Kristallnacht. The protagonist is Otto Silberman, a well-to-do Jewish businessman — some years older than the author. We see how this man, used to a comfortable existence of eating well, taking taxis everywhere, living in a pleasant apartment with his non-Jewish wife, gradually becomes desperate — turned away from establishments where he’d long been welcomed, betrayed by friends and colleagues. Otto escapes out of the back door of his apartment when the stormtroopers call and from then on, he is on the run with nowhere to go. You have to register to stay in a hotel. Trains are his best bet, although he can’t cross the border because he’d have to show his papers. He catches train after train, backwards and forwards across Germany — mainly travelling second class so as not to attract attention. One time he bribes a chauffeur to show him across the Belgian border, but after a few moments of freedom he is caught by Belgian guards who escort him back to Germany.

The book was written very quickly after Kristallnacht and the frenzy of writing captures Otto’s desperate travels. The translator says that a sense of motion is embedded in the rhythm of the original language. The book captures propulsion, yet Otto is really going around in circles — going nowhere.

The reader doesn’t necessarily like this rather toffy businessman, but we are sensitive to his plight. He is being ripped from his culture: ‘As of yesterday, I am something different because I am a Jew.’ In the end he seems to be driven to madness. He has himself arrested and his prison companion (who is about to be sterilised) ultimately concludes that Otto is pretending to be a Jew.

The book, for me, provided moments of immersion into the frenzied, desperate experience of people on the brink of that abomination wrought by humans on other humans — the holocaust.

Emily Bitto: Wild Abandon

There really is a city in Ohio, US called Zanesville and sadly it is now remembered for a horrific massacre of exotic animals that occurred in 2011 when Vietnam Veteran Terry Thompson allegedly set free fifty of fifty-six animals he had kept in a private zoo, before he shot himself. The fifty animals who’d been released ended up dead, killed by local police to protect the public. Emily Bitto has made this incident a focus of her latest novel, Wild Abandon, that as well as being a tribute to the fate of those innocent animals is a kind of coming-of-age story.

Will leaves Australia, a twenty-two year-old, adrift in the world, fleeing from the failure of his first love (Laura) and also from the person he fears he has become — to a large extent he blames the cultural cringe of growing up in what he sees as a ‘backward’ country town. Away from the constraints of home, Will can experiment with different ways of being and at first he throws himself into the New York art scene — that is, the art scene available to him through a friend of his older brother, who has lived in New York for a few years. And so follows a brief time of nihilistic hedonism — a few beers for breakfast is nothing, he is constantly drunk and high. Bitto has said that she wanted this writing to mirror excess and she seems to have achieved this admirably: ‘He passed a group of young black guys with a portable speaker playing Kendrick Lamar and he drifted through chained pools of scent — dog pee and sullage and sweet weed smoke — fingering constantly the ziplock edges of the baggies in his pocket. / At the corner of his overhyped ebullience, he knew, hovered the threat of despair…’ [pages 10 – 11]

The people Will meets in the New York art scene are desperately trying to prove themselves — the only way to escape is to get high. Fortunately, before he becomes totally unaccountable for his actions, Will decides to hire a car and set off on the inevitable road trip. He ends up in Littleproud, Ohio where a girl he knew at school (absolutely no romantic interest) now lives with the husband, JT, she met on line and she’s about to have a baby: a domestic scene very different from Will’s experience of New York.

Will badly needs to earn some money, but he doesn’t have a Green Card. Through JT Will meets Wayne, who seems to be modelled on the Vietnam Vet Terry Thompson. Wayne needs help with feeding his exotic animals. Initially Will is scared of many of the animals — lions, tigers, bears — but he loves some of the baby cubs who are still being bottle-fed. At Wayne’s we are thrown into a sweaty, undomesticated life: chicken nuggets are the main food, dirty feet, I could smell the carpets… Wayne comes to like Will and the two work together feeding the animals and gathering huge supplies of chicken meat from a rather dodgy processing place.

People who know the story of the Zanesville massacre can probably anticipate what will happen in the story. It came as a shock to me. Reports of escaped animals and then, Wayne’s dead body found. But the horror above everything else is the fate of those exotic animals innocently foraging outside the fence because Wayne had opened their cages. Those animals were used to kind treatment from humans and wouldn’t attack unless provoked. But a large proportion of them were slaughtered.

Will returns to Melbourne and, without using cliché, Bitto describes how life goes on, the world keeps revolving, ‘he would at last stop thinking about Wayne, and Laura too…’. And then there is a coda, where we see Wayne years before in Vietnam — one of the many traumatic experiences he had and the solace he found in feeding a little monkey.

Richard Powers: Bewilderment

Bewilderment was on the 2021 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.

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.

Booker Prize winner

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

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.

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