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Category: My Reading

The 2020 Booker Prize

The Booker prize for fiction goes back to 1969. The prestigious prize is awarded to the best original novel written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom. The longlist and shortlist for 2020 have aready been announced. The winner will be announced on 19th November.

Tony Thomas aims to read the entire longlist before that prize-winning date. I’m hoping for another review from him — he has already posted a review of Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments. I am working my way through these books too. So far my ‘favourite’ continues to be Shuggie Bain, already reviewed on this blog.

Shuggie Bain
The 2020 longlist

I started off reading Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road, which was longlisted but didn’t make the shortlist — I’m not surprised. I have now read three or four of Anne Tyler’s books and this is not the best. The main character, Micah, is (one assumes) on the autism spectrum. He reminded me a bit of the main character in The Accidental Tourist – Tyler seems to be interested in slightly eccentric men. Okay – so Micah lives by routine – we get sick of being told every detail of how he makes coffee – which he does quite often. Irritatingly every time someone takes a jacket on or off, they ‘shrug’ themselves into it or out of it. Good once, but only once. For me there was no drama. There isn’t even much depth to the exploration of Micah’s character. At the end, my feeling was: ho hum.

Another book that was longlisted, but not shortlisted is Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. I took a while to get into it – possibly because I’m not a part of the ‘fun age’, which is Afro American 20 to 30 somethings who throw back cocktails and champagne and speak in a language that is almost foreign for me. Themes addressed in this novel are important: Can we connect across barriers of race, gender, wealth and privilege? The story hinges on an incident where Emira, a baby sitter for the privileged, white, Chamberlain household is called unexpectedly to take care of the 2 year-old daughter she cares for. Emira is at a party, but because the Chamberlains pay her generously, she leaves the party, turns up in her party gear and, as Mrs Chamberlain suggests, takes the little girl to the local supermarket – supposedly a safe place to hang out late at night. In her party gear, Emira certainly doesn’t look like a baby sitter. She is accused by a security guard of kidnapping the 2 year-old Briar, with whom she has a very close relationship. (I love the name Briar for this precocious little white girl!) The incident is filmed by Kelley (who is white), and much later in the story, by Mrs Chamberlain’s devious means, the footage is released on a TV news program. The Chamberlains are the kind of family that prides itself on inviting African American people to dinner. And Kelley seems to have a way of wanting to befriend African American people – all of his girlfriends since high school (and he is now well into his 30s) have been African American. By almost too much of a coincidence, in high school, he briefly dated Mrs Chamberlain – indeed it was to Kelley that she lost her virginity – so the relationship had special significance for her.

Kiley Reid

A review in The Guardian points out that: ‘One of the novel’s deep ironies is that the white people in Emira’s life are more fixated on race than she is’.  The final chapter is set some years after Emira has left the Chamberlain babysitting job (which was upgraded to a nanny in the hope of keeping Emira). She is working in a ‘proper’ job as a quite well paid administrative assistant. At a local market one day she happens to see Kelley with his black girlfriend (Emira never contacted him after the film of the supermarket incident was released for TV although she did learn later that this was the work of Mrs Chamberlain, not Kelley) and she also sees (but avoids contact with) Mrs Chamberlain and now 5 year-old Briar. She wonders what she learned from her time at the Chamberlain household.

Books on the shortlist that I have read so far (as well as Shuggie Bain) include Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar. It’s her debut novel. It was not a compelling read for me. Most interesting was the setting in India – what it’s like for middle class business people. A woman whose mother in her 50s has dementia could be a fascinating topic, but with this book we had the woman’s life story, how she’s never got on well with her mother – she seems to be lacking in compassion, anyway. At times she can’t stand her new born baby. The book ends pretty much where it started. Maybe the woman will explore new fields, but maybe she’ll just return to her middle class home and have more children. The mother is not much changed from how we saw her at the beginning of the story.

More interesting, although challenging, for me, was Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body (an enticing title). I found it very difficult to get into this book. I thought it was because of my lack of knowledge of Zimbabwean culture (in spite of brief visits I’ve made to Botswana and Uganda, connected to work and when in Botswana I paid a visit to Victoria falls and looked across the foaming mass of water to Zimbabwe).

Victoria Falls

But maybe my difficulty was not having read the first two novels of the trilogy that this book completes. I also found Dangarembga’s use of the second person, while suitably distancing, a bit difficult to deal with.

Tambu, the protagonist, is a middle aged Zimbabwean woman, unmarried, with no children. Had I read the other two parts of the trilogy I would have seen her grow up during the time of the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, go to high school and university.

We first meet Tambu when she has just abandoned a prestigious job as a copywriter because she was angry that white colleagues took the credit for her achievements. She’s running through her savings, living in a hostel in Harare, getting around on crowded Kombi buses.

Kombi bus in Harare

It looks as though this is going to be a downward spiral into poverty. She feels as though she is going to fall down a precipice. All the while she is attempting to disguise her increasingly desperate poverty and conserve the soles of her Lady Di pumps. For reasons that include her grim financial prospects and her age, she moves to a widow’s boarding house and eventually finds work as a biology teacher. A moment of optimism, but it seems inevitably to go wrong. Tambu eventually loses her job when she badly beats a meek, mild-mannered student named Elizabeth. Tambu suffers a nervous breakdown that lands her in a hospital.


It seemed to me a kind of irony when Tambu meets her former (white) boss, Tracey and is invited to join an eco-tourism business offering the so-called real ghetto and village experience. It works well for a while and she is comfortably off. But, when promoted Tambu suggests a tour to her own village. On the day of the first tour, there is a celebration performance planned. When one of the European men takes a picture of her, Tambu’s mother, the head hostess amongst the women, becomes frenzied and agitated. She strips off her top, and the tour is a disaster. Tambu resigns. The novel ends with Tambu taking a job at Christine, her aunt’s, newest business venture: a security company. This is described as an optimistic move – going back to family. But then, going to her mother’s village was a disaster. For me, the book was about the terrible loneliness of a woman who has defied her family’s African traditions only to find Western ones no less limiting.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

I’m still reading some of the shortlisted entries — so there may be another post on the Booker before the winner is announced on 19th November.

Shuggie Bain — another novel from the Booker long list

This is a debut novel and it’s made it onto the Booker long list — and of the three books from that list that I’ve read so far, it is by far the best.

Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart plunges us into the slimy, putrified ghastly poverty of 1980s Glasgow and we are held there, as though under water, not allowed to surface for the entire 430 pages of the novel. It is a world of ill-fitting dentures, dirty underwear, the stink of vomit — yet I found it a compelling read. I am normally irritated when writers incorporate regional accents into their work. But the Glaswegian brogue enlivens every page and I loved it.

How did a 16 year-old boy come to be living alone in a dirty bedsit alongside down and out old men, mainly drunks, working in a supermarket deli and occasionally going to school? The book tells us how this came about.

It is about the relentless and unbreakable cycles of poverty and alcoholism.

Hugh, known as Shuggie, is the child of Agnes Bain’s second marriage. He is thus much younger than her other children. The husband (Shug) dumps his family in a remote and rundown housing estate out at Pithead but never lives there with them. A daughter finds refuge in a marriage that takes her to South Africa and Shuggie’s older brother, Leek, who was offered a place at university two years ago that he has been unable to take up, stays around to try to help young Shuggie ‘act normal’. But to the other kids Shuggie is a ‘wee poofter’ and is mercilessly teased. Agnes took to drink long before Shug dumped them at the Pithead estate. With an alcoholic’s desperation she uses whatever money she can get her hands on to satisfy her need — even after robbing the gas meter and the meter on the TV set, the family often has to go without a hot dinner. And yet, Agnes has a certain pride. When she’s not in a drunken stupor, the house is neat and tidy and she takes great trouble in her appearance, keeping her hair dyed and pantyhose unladdered. Shuggie has a desperate love for her, believing that he must be able to make her better. As a reviewer in The Guardian says, ‘something sadder than heroism is Shuggie’s passion for his disintegrating mother’.

There is brief hope when Agnes joins AA and goes for a year without a drink. But a new boyfriend entices her back one evening at a posh golf club dinner, and after that it takes only a matter of hours for her to be back in an alcoholic stupor. She is ashamed of herself. There is a suicide attempt, but she is rescued by her sons.

The book would be unbearable were it not for the love that is the foundation of Shuggie’s devotion to his mother. Even when she dies (after a night out on the town, brought home by the police), Shuggie makes sure that Agnes looks as she would want. He puts fresh red lipstick on his dead mother’s lips and, for her funeral, improvises some earrings.

Sophie Ward   Love and Other Thought Experiments  (Corsair, hard cover 2020) Review by Tony Thomas

Although this post is headed ‘by Jennifer Bryce’, it isn’t. It’s by Tony Thomas. Every year Tony aims to read all of the Booker long list and here is his review of Sophie Ward’s book, which is on the list. Thank you, Tony.

Booker Long List 2020 (announced 28 July 2020)

Sophie Ward 1

Yes it’s another (unacknowledged) sf novel by an author from outside the field. (This is the sentence I started with, reviewing The Wall last year, and it applies equally to this book).

Sophie Ward is a professional actress, 55, who has been in quite a few films and whom I must have seen in many British TV shows (eg Heartbeat, Inspector Lynley, Lewis, Hustle) but don’t remember. This is her first novel. She has two sons from her previous marriage to vet Paul Hobson (1988-96) after which she came out as a lesbian.  In 2005 she and Rena Brennan had a civil partnership ceremony, and they married in 2014 when it became legal. She now describes her sons (b 1989 and 1993) as the sons of this marriage. She has an Open University degree in Literature and Philosophy.

Sophie Ward Heartbeat


Knowing all this, it’s not much of a surprise that each chapter starts with a philosophical conundrum, eg Pascal’s wager, brain-in-a-box, Chalmers’ zombies, Descartes’ demon etc, and then this is explored, more-or-less, in the chapter which follows. And also no surprise that the story begins with a lesbian relationship in the present day, in which the characters of Rachel and Eliza are well drawn in a conventional literary way. The chapters initially seem loosely connected – chapter two jumps to Rachel’s conception (we discover a good way through), chapter three deals with Rachel’s elderly mother and her husband in later life in Brazil, chapter four returns to the lesbian couple from the point of view of an ant which Rachel ‘imagines’ has entered her eye. The ‘ant’ eats the tumour which has started in Rachel’s head, which allows her to deliver the baby she is pregnant with, Arthur. The foetus has been artificially implanted using the egg of her wife Eliza and the sperm of a good gay friend, Hal. Not too long after this, Rachel dies. It’s about at this time that we realize that this is really an sf novel in literary guise: the ‘ant’ turns out to be (or to become, it’s unclear) a god-like super computer, which relates, in extremely broad metaphorical terms, the future of humanity, a humanity over which it exercises god-like powers, including the ability to enter or create parallel universes (those ones, you know, just a little bit different from ours). So in the final chapter, the adult Arthur has become an astronaut returning from a solo flight to the Mars moon,Deimos, (his ‘reality’ is the one I’ve described so far, but twenty or thirty years on) but on splashdown he’s greeted by his mother Rachel, still alive in this continuum, who soon realizes that there’s something different about this Arthur – he’s just extremely puzzled and confused, but he’s able to fool, for a while at least, his monitoring body-implanted personal computer (Zeus!), which of course is communicating everything to a future somewhat more sinister NASA. And does he become Zeus at the end? So it’s intimated, as he sits with his mother, contemplating all this, and is Zeus just another name for that ant, the super-computer, who is really Arthur as well? Ho hum. Well, all this canvasses a whole lot of rather hoary sf ideas, all lumped-together, though nicely enough done , but of course there is no attempt to explain why/how all this might happen in anything like science-fictional terms – it’s really all just a metaphor for the author to explore what I take to be her real interest, as the blurb says, ‘love lost and found across the universe’.

Sophie Ward 2

It kept me reading, though rather slowly. Now if only the Booker panel would put in a real sf novel by, say, Kim Stanley Robinson or Adam Roberts, better written than this, they might realise that there is an imaginative world out there they know almost nothing about.

Sophie Ward 3

Mary Trump on her Uncle Donald

At the front of Mary Trump’s book about her uncle Donald, Too Much is Never Enough, is a quote from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo:  If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.

I was unsure about whether to read this book. Every day news broadcasts confront us with the devastation caused by a narcissistic sociopathic man who happens to be president of the United States. Could I take more?

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Mary Trump is a clinical psychologist and she has experienced first hand what it is like to be a member of the Trump family. She has reason to write this ruthless ‘blistering memoir’. Her father, Freddy, was the oldest of the Trump children, Donald was the second son. Freddy was disinherited — largely because he didn’t tow the family line — he wanted to be an airline pilot rather than be groomed to head Trump Management. The extraordinarily cruel and controlling power that the Trump father, Fred, had over his children led to Freddy crumbling:  giving up his airline career, divorcing his wife, and becoming a hopeless alcoholic who died in 1981 at the age for forty-two. Donald took over as the favoured son. So Mary has every reason to seek some kind of revenge. She, her daughter and her brother and his family missed out on inheriting a share of a huge fortune.

The book is perhaps more about the legacy of the emotionally unavailable Trump parents. There seems to have been no love. A photograph of the Trump children does, I think, show them as tense and anxious. A review in The Guardian describes how Trump’s mother was ‘born to penury in Scotland, [and] remained so meanly thrifty that every week she dressed up in her fur stole and drove her pink Cadillac around New York suburbs to collect small change from the coin-operated laundry rooms in buildings the family owned’.

Money seemed to replace love in this family. There are many cases of  wealthy Victorian parents who were remote from their children — but usually there seemed to be a loving nanny. Mary mentions here grandmother’s illness caused by gynaecological problems soon after Robert, the youngest child’s birth. But the mother lived on to her late eighties. I suppose she was ‘nouveau riche’. She is described as carrying out her husband’s bidding, showing no warmth towards her children. The father took little or no interest in his children’s education.  Mary suggests that Donald had a learning disability — it is well known that he hired a surrogate to sit his university entrance exams. Mary gives the impression that the father rewarded displays of toughness and sleight of hand. Whereas Freddy didn’t wish to pursue the road to cut-throat business,  Donald was easily manipulated by his father. Mary suggests that in the same way today he is manipulated by the likes of Vladimir Putin.

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The Trump children: Donald is on the far left next to oldest son, Freddy

Mary was certain that Donald would lose the 2016 election: how could such an ignorant ego-maniac win? So she didn’t attend the election party as she didn’t want to display before the family her joy when Hillary Clinton won. But she was wrong.

Tellingly, Trump has a photograph of his father on his desk in the Oval Office.

I interpret Mary Trump’s book as saying that there are explanations as to why Donald Trump has turned out the way he has. The book doesn’t set out to address the weightier question of how is it that such a man came to be president of the United States.

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Donald Trump with his father in 1988





Nicholson Baker: Substitute

Nicholson Baker is not a well-known writer in Australia. I wrote a review of his novel Travelling Sprinkler in the early days of this blog:

‘Substitute’ is the term used in the US for emergency teacher — someone who fills in when a regular teacher needs to be absent. To my amazement, it isn’t necessary to have any teaching qualification to be a ‘substitute’ — in some states it’s not even necessary to have any kind of degree or diploma, just to have passed high school.

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Nicholson Baker

This book is a chronological account of the twenty-eight days that Baker ‘subbed’ in the school district of Maine. I was drawn to it because for a short period of my professional life I was a high school teacher. The subtitle of the book is ‘Going to school with a thousand kids’ — and that’s exactly what you do. At first I thought it was going to be pretty tedious: there are of course the daily classroom dramas, but there’s no plot, no climax. That’s what Baker intends — to give us a taste of the life of a teacher. We are immersed in the world of a sub. A sub doesn’t even have the interest of shaping the curriculum or watching students develop their skills — Baker is expected to stand in at all levels: high school chemistry, kindergarten, and lots of middle school classes in between. As Baker said in an interview: ‘I think teachers should be paid more. I would never want to pretend that what I did was equal to what they have to do.’

Baker 2

Ubiquitous in these classrooms are malfunctioning iPads, dull worksheets, requests to go to the bathroom, intrusions from the PA system and lists of educational objectives. The objectives reminded me of when I undertook teacher training a long time ago. On our teaching rounds we had to write up our lessons and each lesson had to have an aim and a set of objectives.

Baker 8

The teachers are worn out. Most of their communications to the children are relayed by Baker in upper case letters because they are shouted, or shrieked. They seem to survive on worksheets and assignments — I was sometimes horrified by the expectations, and from Baker’s observations there was no way that most of the kids could understand what they were meant to be doing — it was just a matter of filling in meaningless blanks on a sheet.  In a history class there was a choice of four ‘isms’: fascism, militarism, isolationism and totalitarianism and they were to be paired with phrases such as ‘Foreign policy of the United States after World War I’, or ‘Focus of growth on industry and military, low standard of living, shortage of food and consumer goods’. A third grade class was given an assignment and one of the questions was: Explain how the writer’s style changes in the last two paragraphs [page 535]. There are lots of routines and automatic punishments such as losing time off recess.

There is an implicit criticism of school structure and curriculum, but also an understanding that teachers are greatly undervalued. Baker spends a lot of time chatting to the kids. He often asks, How’s your day going? He is greatly concerned when one student tells him of a drug he’s been prescribed in adult doses and the side effect is that he cannot sleep. Baker speaks to the school nurse about it. Whilst he undertakes the required supervision of work sheet completion, he tries to teach students the basics that they will need to survive — how to spell, and particularly, their times tables. As one reviewer comments: ‘For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement.’

In the same review, we learn how Baker managed to write up all this detail. In an interview he said: ‘After the day was over, I parked in a parking lot on the way home and spent a few hours making an anguished set of recollections about the highs and lows of the day.’

Baker 3

It seemed to me that Baker is a natural teacher. If only he could have been let loose in those classrooms with no obligation to supervise quizzes and worksheet completions. He would have read to the kids. He would have drilled them in their tables. He would have talked to them about all kinds of things relevant to their lives.

Cate Haste: Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler

Alma 1

Alma Mahler

My introduction to Alma Mahler, at the age of about fifteen,  was through a World War II era publication by Alma, entitled Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, translated by Basil Creighton. The book had been produced ‘in complete conformity with economy standards’. My aunt had acquired it in 1948 through a book club and when, many years later, she knew that I was interested in music, she passed it on to me. I’d vaguely heard of Mahler. Didn’t like his heavy music. The book, largely an appreciation of Gustav Mahler with some letters at the end, appeared to have been written by a devoted wife, with no suggestion of the life of dalliance that she was probably still leading at the time of publication.

Alma Bride of the Wind

Kokoschka’s painting, Bride of the Wind, dedicated to Alma Mahler

Next, many, many years later, I saw Bruce Beresford’s film Bride of the Wind — the title referring to a painting by Oskar Kokoschka (one of Alma’s many lovers) that he dedicated to Alma.

Alma 4

I was almost obsessed by that movie. For me it conveyed the belle epoque of early 20th century Vienna — the exciting discoveries, the flourishing arts, and most importantly it told me a great deal more about Alma Mahler — dwelling on the devastation for her and Gustav on the death of their daughter and, significantly, driving home the fact that when they agreed to marry, Gustav insisted that Alma cease her own musical composition (which was a driving part of her life). This demand seems outrageous today and critics have considered that Alma’s composing can’t have meant a great deal to her. However, she said that she carried her own songs around inside her ‘as if in a coffin’. Particularly at that time there were no role models of female composers and maybe she assumed that her own efforts could amount to no more than some gentile accomplishment.The film ends, well after the death of Gustav, with a concert of Alma’s own works.

Alma her song

One of Alma Mahler’s compositions

By the time of her death in 1964, Alma Mahler had a reputation as a self-serving, narcissistic gold-digger, who flung herself at many powerful male figures in the arts. It is now interesting to examine her life from a distance and to evaluate it in its contemporary context. A recently published book by Cate Haste provides a detailed and largely sympathetic account of Alma Mahler’s life.

Alma 3

Alma with her two daughters before Maria’s death in 1907

Alma had huge admiration for her father, the artist Emil Schindler, who died when she was young. She was used to the artistic wealth of early 20th century Vienna. My own belief is that Alma, perhaps unconsciously, saw Gustav as a replacement for her recently deceased father. Maybe because she couldn’t fulfil her life through composition, Alma came to define her life through love – and the list of her lovers is long. Was it from a lack of fulfilment? Artists, such as Klimt, Kokoschka, the architect Gropius (whom she married), ultimately the writer Werfel (who was a best seller in his day). Sometimes, it seems to me, her diaries (quoted in Haste’s book) read like those of a teenager: do I really love him? In the foreword, Haste says that Alma was ‘untrammelled by convention’ (page x) – her liaisons were often wild and it seems she was quite open about her philandering and adultery. In many ways it was a life of peaks and troughs: three of her four children died (Bereford’s film concentrates on her life while Mahler was alive), and there are many descriptions of times when Alma was driven to her bed for long periods of depression. She seems to have been obsessed by her own allure – later in life she was described as ‘an extravagantly festooned battleship’ (page 261) and – more unkind – ‘her figure a bag of potatoes’ (page 286) and ‘a bloated Valkyrie’ who ‘drank like a fish’ (page 353).

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the ‘extravagantly festooned battleship’

For most of her life Alma seems to have had plenty of money. After a horrifying escape from Europe, over the Pyrenees, during World War II, Alma and third husband Franz Werfel ended up in the US and were soon holding salons with their friends from Europe. Alma must have been well read – at one time she is described as packing up 10,000 books. However, although many of her friends were Jewish, she was unforgivably anti-Semitic.

She is known as Alma Mahler – Mahler was her first husband. She also married Walter Gropius, the architect and writer Franz Werfel. But in the end, it seems, she wanted to be remembered through her connection with Mahler.

Alma Jonathan Pryce

Jonathan Pryce playing Mahler in Bride of the Wind



My friend Sally has just reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s brilliantly irreverent song about Alma Mahler:

Thanks very much, Sally!



A Ladder to the Sky

John Boyne’s most well-known book is the YA, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas(2006). I haven’t read it or seen the film that was made. John Boyne, from Dublin, was a guest at Adelaide Writers’ Week.

Boyne 3

It is said that ambition is putting a ladder to the sky, and Boyne’s book, A Ladder to the Sky is about a sociopathic writer who is totally dominated by ambition. We first meet the divine looking young Maurice Swift as he taunts an ageing gay novelist, Erich Ackerman. This part of the book is from Ackerman’s point of view. Maurice teases out a story that Ackerman has never before told, about a terrible act he committed when he was a member of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany. Maurice heartlessly appropriates this story, launching his own career with a best seller and ending Ackerman’s career in ignominy.

Boyne 2

The second part of the book, an ‘Interlude’, is from Gore Vidal’s point of view – told in the third person. Writers are gathering at Vidal’s opulent pad on the Amalfi Coast and Maurice, flaunting his good looks, is in tow with a well-known American writer. Some reviewers have liked this part of the book best, but I preferred to be carried along by the breath-taking horror of the next few sections.

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Gore Vidal’s ‘pad’

I found the next section technically very interesting. Written from the point of view of Maurice’s wife, Edith, it is narrated in the second person, addressing Maurice. They are living in Norwich. His writing appears to be at a stand-still while she has just published a very successful first novel and is teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia. We, the readers, start to sense a creeping menace – why is her computer warm when she arrives home earlier than expected? Maurice can put together a sentence quite well, but has no ideas for plot and, being an utter sociopath, presumably has no interest in character. He appropriates her ready-for-the pubisher second novel. She finds out. She must go. He pushes her down the stairs and she ends up on life support. The end of this section is extraordinary. Narrated by Edith in a coma – she can hear, but cannot communicate. And she knows so much: she is the only person who knows that Maurice is selling her novel as his own work. She also knows that her sister has planted child pornography on her estranged husband’s computer so that he will be barred from having access to their children. Edith also knows that she is pregnant, but loses the baby in her fall. Edith’s last perceptions, which are spaced out more in the print form of the novel, adding poignancy to her last few moments: ‘I can hear switches being turned and the wheezing of an artificial breather as it starts to slow down, and that’s when I realise. You’re turning me off, aren’t you, Maurice? You’re turning me off. You’re killing me. To protect yourself and, more importantly, to protect your novel. My novel. Your novel.

I see you.

You’re reaching down and taking my

that thing   at the end of my arm …

I can’t see you any more      there’s no light

no sound

no more words.’

Nothing more needs to be said.

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The rest of the book is narrated by Maurice. He continues to build his career in New York, where he owns a literary magazine – ideal for appropriating story lines from short stories he rejects for publication. He has a son, through surrogacy – for some strange reason he always wanted children. But – a similar story – Daniel finds out too much – particularly the appropriated novel from Edith, whom Daniel wrongly thinks is his mother. Thirteen-year-old Daniel dies of an asthma attack when Maurice withholds his ventolin puffer.

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Maurice returns to London and becomes a drunk. A student takes an interest in him and the forever ambitious Maurice agrees to meet him on a regular basis in various pubs, understanding that this association will lead to a biography, since the student’s father is an editor at Random House. Playing on Maurice’s growing frailty, the student manages to expose everything. Maurice ends up in prison for life. As a rather satirical coda,  Maurice teaches creative writing while he is incarcerated. One student writes particularly well – a novel ‘that would give Henry James a run for his money’. But this student dies in a prison brawl. Maurice, of course, appropriates the work. It is published and ends up one of the best-selling books of that year.

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I loved the irresistible plot, the variety of writing and particularly the rather smug sense of humour as Boyne gently satirises the literary world of festival circuits, publishers and literary prizes.


The Mitford Sisters

Most people of my generation will have heard of the Mitford sisters who were a part, albeit a subversive part, of British aristocracy during our childhood and young to middle adulthood. But, which was the writer? Which was the communist? Which was the friend of Hitler? Nancy Mitford had written quite prolifically and was particularly known for her semi-autobiographical Love in a Cold Climate. I knew that one of them had associated with Hitler, and another with Sir Oswald Mosley — but I was often confused about who had done what. So, when I saw Laura Thompson’s The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters on a bargain table at Readings Bookshop, I snapped it up.



On the one hand, the book is quite easy to read, but on another, it hops between one sister and another, so I had to keep resorting to checking the family tree provided at the front of the book. As a Washington Post reviewer says, Thompson ‘leap-frogs’ from one sister to another.



David, Second Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney — described as ‘minor British aristocrats’ had seven children: one son, Thomas, born in 1909, and the famous six girls. Nancy was born in 1904. She became wealthy from her writing (most of the girls seemed to find ways of squandering their inheritance) and lived in Paris, for much of the time at Versailles, near the Palais.

Pamela, born in 1907, is known as ‘the quiet one’. She was a fascist sympathiser. The next girl, born in 1910, was Diana, famous for having (ultimately) married Oswald Mosley of fascist fame. They were married (a second marriage for both) in Joseph Goebbel’s drawing room in 1936, and Hitler was one of the guests. They spent much of the war years in Holloway prison, and after that under house arrest.


the young Diana


Diana with husband Sir Oswald Mosley, in later years

Unity, ironically christened Unity Valkyrie (given Hitler’s love of Wagner), is famous for having been a close friend of Hitler. Thompson’s description suggests that Hitler may have even shown a skerrick of kindness when she was ill. The day World War II was declared, Unity, who was in Germany, shot herself in the head — rather than killing herself, she ended up with brain injury that reduced her to infantile behaviour. She died of meningitis nine years later. She was shipped back to England and her devoted mother cared for her for the rest of Unity’s life.


Hobnobbing with Hitler before WWII


Unity, shipped back to England from Germany after shooting herself in the head

The second youngest girl was Jessica (‘Decca’), born in 1917.  A fervent ‘left-winger’, she gave her share of inheritance to the Communist party and lived in America, marrying an active communist, Robert Treuhaft.

The youngest, Deborah, was born in 1920 and entered the upper echelons of British aristocracy through marriage, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire. She also rubbed shoulders with American ‘royalty’ as a close friend of John F.Kennedy and his sister.


Deborah’s marriage: she became Duchess of Devonshire


In later years, the Duchess of Devonshire with royalty

Laura Thompson presents these lives — showing the many family feuds: the ‘push and pull’. I kept thinking that however radical their behaviour seemed to be it was always cushioned by that substantial British aristocratic background (Nancy coined the terms U and non-U: whether some word or behaviour was upper class or not). As one reviewer says, ‘there is no letting them off the Hitler hook’. At least I now have a somewhat clearer idea of who did what.


Mitford graves






Adam Roberts

I discovered Adam Roberts this year and so far have read two of his books, The Snow and The Black Prince. This year Tony Thomas gave a comprehensive talk about Adam Roberts to a Science Fiction group, the Nova Mob, and I will draw on  Tony’s talk in this piece.

Adam Roberts 1

Adam Roberts is an extraordinarily prolific writer, as Tony describes:

Adam Charles Roberts was born on 30 June 1965, which makes him 54 now. He apparently spent his early life reading sf and then his twenties pursuing his academic career while still reading sf. In 2000 when his first novel Salt was published and he was 35 he was a lecturer at the University of London, specialty 19th century literature, thesis on the poet John Clare. Later he was a Reader and now he’s a Professor of 19th Century literature – his day job he calls it – at Royal Holloway, London University and lives in Berkshire with his wife Rachel and has two children. The Professorship he holds apparently is the same one formerly held by J. I. M. Stewart, better known as crime writer Michael Innes.

Adam Roberts Nova Mob

So, as well as being a Professor of 19th Century literature, Roberts manages to consistently produce a couple of very good novels each year.

The first Adam Roberts book I read was The Snow.  As Tony Thomas says,  it begins as a standard disaster novel in the mode perhaps of Wyndham or early Ballard: The Day of the Triffids, or The Wind from Nowhere. Here the snow comes from nowhere, and continues to fall each day, and continues to fall. London streets and houses are gradually covered, with inhabitants moving to upper stories, and travelling by rooftops. Eventually the snow is three miles thick over the whole earth, billions have died.

Adam Roberts The Snow

All forms of communication cease. We don’t know exactly why this has happened: maybe an experiment gone wrong or maybe it’s the extra-terrestrials? Somehow Tira and a few other (total 150,000) people survive by living underground in airlocks – such as an abandoned office building. Tira is rescued by Americans who have established a military society, in a place called Liberty, above where the US is located (‘NUSA’, the New USA). The survivors are all military minded — most Democrats don’t make it. Tony suggests that Roberts was imagining something like Donald Trump’s current cabinet. They somehow have sufficient drones and aircraft for this society but it is, apparently, never possible (or else they keep it secret) to explore the rest of the world – is Australia under 3 miles of snow? One of the things I liked about this book was the writing style. At first it is conventional narrative, but then there are bits written as legal documents – confessions. People’s names are blanked out, as they might be under a repressive regime. This device helps to make the whole extraordinary idea more plausible.

Tony points out that most reviewers didn’t like the novel, finding the snow bore too much allegorical weight – ‘veering dangerously into allegory of darkest entropy: personal, political, planetary’ – writes John Clute, but Roberts is more subtle than this, and as usual too there’s quite a lot of relieving humour, which many reviewers also didn’t like.

The second Adam Roberts book I read this year was The Black Prince. I’ll hand over to Tony Thomas for a full description:

The Black Prince is Adam Roberts’s first historical novel, and it’s great. It was commissioned by the Anthony Burgess estate based on an unpublished script by Burgess left after his death. Just a shortish script, which Roberts (a great admirer of Burgess) expanded and embellished to make a novel. He originally incorporated quite a bit of Burgess’s dialogue, but lost most of this in subsequent revisions as the dialogue didn’t seem suited to the novel he was creating, so we’ve ended up with a work much more Roberts than Burgess. It was published by the crowd funding publisher Unbound, with the help of 434 supporters …  Once the required amount of money had been accumulated, the book was able to be published, and contributors received a signed copy of the first edition hard copy, plus, depending on the amount of their contribution, various other gifts such as signed earlier books by the author. The contributor giving the most got copies of all the Burgess books Roberts had read before launching into the project, ie the whole of Burgess’s rather extensive oeuvre, sf, novels, non-fiction and all.

Adam Roberts 3

But back to The Black Prince itself. And first a little historical background. Edward, the Black Prince (1330-1376) was the eldest son of King Edward III of England, and thus heir and Prince of Wales, but he died before his father and so his son Richard succeeded to the throne instead, as Richard II. Edward, the Black Prince (black for his armour) was an important commander in the hundred years war, mainly in France, but also in Spain, where he was involved in the important and still remembered battles of Cressy, Poitiers, Najera, and Limoges (in this latter case the town was besieged and sacked and everyone in the town, on Edward’s orders, was slaughtered. This very bloody encounter forms nearly the final chapter of the novel, probably the point at which reviewer Margaret Drabble had to stop reading, as she suggests in her favourable review in the TLS.) Four or five hundred years later, England was still doing the same thing to France. Many of these names will be familiar to students of history, not to mention readers of Shakespeare, whose second historical tetralogy begins with Richard II (the Black Prince’s son), and in which John of Gaunt, Edward’s brother and fellow campaigner in France, is an important character. Richard II is deposed by John of Gaunt’s son, his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the man who became Henry IV and featured in two further Shakespeare plays.

So Roberts had to write about a world somewhat familiar to us in broad outline, but very unfamiliar in its day to day details. It is hard for us now to know what life was like for those living, fighting, and dying in it. Clearly research will fill some of these holes, and fantasy authors have similar issues to face in creating their worlds. But as  Roberts writes in a blog on this subject in June this year, there’s more to it than this:

Modernity has largely replaced the old warrior values of feudal society like bravery, loyalty and strength with bourgeois virtues like honesty, decency and hard work. There has been, in the West, a profound shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Post-Romantic aesthetic sensibility—and therefore, sensibility as such—is different to pre-Romantic aesthetic sensibility. We are not just less violent nowadays than people used to be in the past, we are many orders of magnitude less violent, because (I’d argue) life is immensely less constrained and frustrating than it used to be. People are still people of course; they deal with many of the same basic ontological necessities that people always have. We still yearn, rage, labour and rest; we still love our children and decline towards death. But in important ways we not only live in different surroundings but are different people now.

Adam Roberts 4

Roberts goes on to say: A historical novel doesn’t have to reflect that, in any absolutist or prescriptive sense; and I cast no aspersions on people enjoying the escapist pleasures of the bodice-ripper. But I would say that a good historical novel at least needs to attempt it. Writing SF or Fantasy, as I usually do, is not that far away from writing a historical novel: world building an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?) But more importantly, writing a historical novel needs to be more like writing SF or Fantasy in that it ought to estrange us from its material to one degree or another. A historical novel that doesn’t estrange has failed, I think.

Tony Thomas then asks: So what does Roberts do to achieve his estrangement? He adopts some experimental techniques copied from Dos Passos via Burgess… Interspersed with the more usual prose sections are, firstly, twenty short Newsreels, modelled on the old Pathé Newsreels, just headlines and a few words, widening the narrative so we get some potted history, some trivial events of the time, songs, some feeling for a wider world – but in a very deliberately fragmented way. The other interspersed sections, Camera Eye, mimic what a camera might see in the hands of an expert director, cutting from one view to another, revealing a character’s thoughts and memories in broken stream-of-consciousness half sentences. But the main part of the novel is carried in the sections given to individual characters, with two of them reappearing several times at different stages of their lives: Edward the Black prince himself and a commoner and sometime soldier in Edward’s army, Black George. The woman who becomes Edward’s wife (in her third marriage), Joan, called the Fair Maid of Kent, in her reappearing sections introduces the only element of fantasy into this novel, as she is a wise woman who can to some extent see the future. Little however is made of this, except for the effect that it has on her own actions, and the need for her to be careful not to be called a witch, a danger for even a high-born woman like Joan. The multiple sections allow Roberts to introduce a wide range of characters from different classes, and have them speaking in their own voices, which he writes was “fun” – but more than this, I think, it expands our vision to a whole world, and a very unfamiliar world.

I loved the way that Roberts showed us 14th century vistas, swooping over scenes of 14th century France like a film camera.  The writing made this time come to life, for me, even more than Hilary Mantel has done. The descriptions of bubonic plague and bloodthirsty battle are horrific – we feel what it was like to be in a suit of armour when suffering from dysentry. And we even hear the arrows whistle through the air in battle.

Thanks to Tony Thomas for the excerpts from his Nova Mob paper on Adam Roberts.


Behrouz Boochani: No Friend But The Mountains

It is terribly hard to write about this book. For years, along with many other Australians, I have been deeply ashamed of the government’s treatment of refugees. When I think of it, I am humiliated. But here I am, sitting at my comfortable desk, groaning along with the crowd who voted against Scott Morrison as Prime Minister — yet my life hasn’t changed radically. I won’t become homeless, stateless or incarcerated.


Behrouz Boochani, a professional journalist who fled oppression via Indonesia, wrote this book using a mobile phone and Whatsapp. It was mainly written after he was forcibly removed from Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre – Manus Prison – following a 23 day siege. He is still living on Manus Island and has no idea of his future.

Boochani was awarded the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. And I remember feeling personally embarrassed when a self-righteous aspiring writer wrote a letter to The Age complaining that the rules, which she had followed assiduously, had been broken, because Boochani is not an Australian citizen. Why not? Read the book.


Indeed, the award may offer Boochani a degree of protection, as he says: ‘Being known, perhaps, and my work being recognised and supported by organisations and other thinkers and artists perhaps gives me an element of protection.’


The book is a beautiful piece of writing. It has been described as ‘anti-genre’. In one sense it is a piece of social reporting, yet it is also a poem that has grown from the Kurdish literary tradition. What courage — what persistence!

He graphically describes the horrific outcomes of the use in Manus Prison of a Kyriarchal system of social domination where the principle is to turn prisoners against each other. He also writes poetic descriptions — flowers, ‘gasping as though in love with the cool ocean breezes’.

We start off by experiencing, through his poetry, the truck ride to the boat in Indonesia: ‘we look up at a sky the colour of intense anxiety. Every so often someone slightly adjusts their position on the truck’s wooden floor to allow the blood to circulate through tired muscles’.

A terrifying boat trip. Inhumane and unexpected imprisonment on Christmas Island, and then a plane to Manus. Where there is ‘a confrontation of bodies, a confrontation of human flesh’, and where  ‘the untreated sewage spilling out around the facility produces a smell … so vile that one feels ashamed to be part of the human species.’


I don’t suppose any of the government personnel who make decisions about immigration policy have read this book. Quite apart from being a beautiful piece of literature it is an important document and we must not blench from reading it.

Boochani’s work will continue to be revered in Australian literary circles. Indeed, his poem ‘The Black Kite’ is in a book, The Sky Falls Down, to be launched next Saturday 13th July at Readings bookstore, Glenferrie Road Hawthorn, 2.00 pm.

Book cover Sky Falls Down (1)

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