Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: My Reading

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

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

Richard Powers

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

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

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

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.

Dyschronia, by Jennifer Mills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Jean McKay: The Animals in That Country

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

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

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:


A whiff of



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’ .

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)

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