Reviewed by Heather O’Connor
This is the second book of Sebastian Barry that I have reviewed this year, but it is so completely different from all his others that I gave myself permission to indulge in this most favorite of authors.
All the other books of his that I have read have been set in Ireland and, in combination, give a wonderful history of that country in the 20th century. Days Without End, however, is set in America, although the narrator is a poor Irish immigrant whose history follows him to the new land where he joins the army, alongside an equally poor young man who becomes his life companion. Together they fight in the Indian Wars, then re-enlist to fight in the American Civil War on the side of the North. The book tells of the horrors of war, of death, of starvation and endless marches in extremes of weather. But in equal measure, Barry writes of the strength of friendship, of decency and courage, and above all, the love and tenderness between the two men.
What stood out for me was his ability to insert no more than a line or at most a paragraph, to describe the life-long commitment of the two men, one of whom assumes the role of a woman and wife, the other of whom takes on the responsibility of a parent to a young Indian child. There is not one lengthy description of any aspect of the relationship between the two, yet it is possibly the most tender love story I’ve read for years.
On a “star” rating this is 4.5 out of 5 – and I can’t even think of what the other .5 could possibly be! If you only read one book this year, read this.
Colm Toibin, House of Names, $29.99
I must have been one of the first people in Australia to buy this recent release, such is my obsession with this terrific writer. I was a bit daunted by the reviews I had read, and it was much harder to get into than other books of his, mainly because my knowledge of Greek mythology is woeful. However, turns out that didn’t really matter – I didn’t need the background to understand this epic story of love, ambition, and struggle for power.
The book is a re-telling of the horrific events in the lives of a king, Agamemnon, explaining how and why he sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods, hoping to ensure his victory in battle. Her betrayal and death is avenged by her mother, Clytemnestra, whose actions rival that of Lady MacBeth. Meanwhile, the other daughter, Electra, and the only son of the family, Orestes, must shape their lives, torn between love of their father and grief for their sister. (Not much love lost from either for their mother, who by this time has taken unto herself a very unpleasant lover. In the end she meets a very gory end.)
Much of the story is told from the point of view of Orestes, who finds companionship and love with his friend, Leander, with whom he has shared the horror of being kidnapped, abused and imprisoned, and the triumph of escape and survival.
As with most of Toibin’s books that I have read, it left me feeling I should go off and attend to the huge gaps in my historical knowledge – this time, of the Greek myths and legends. This book is completely different from his novels set in Ireland, although it reminded me a bit of The Testament of Mary, where he took a known story and re-told it from a completely different angle.
House of Names will challenge you, but it’s worth it!
Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, $32.99
Many of you will have read The Reluctant Fundamentalist (or seen the film), an earlier work of the author. In Exit West, he brings a really interesting take on the refugee experience, writing with a mix of stark reality and a touch of magical realism which you don’t expect in books dealing with displacement and incredible hardship.
You don’t know the identity of the city about which he writes, but it is readily recognisable as a site of civil war, destruction, displacement, death and despair – we see it every night on TV news programs. The central characters are a young couple who meet and fall in love amid the chaos. They agonise about the decision to flee the city, leaving behind family and friends. Their escape is through a series of magical windows, the first of which lands them in Greece. From there, they make their way to London, only to face a new series of challenges, finding housing and jobs and fitting in with the wave of refugees who preceded them.
This book provides a different focus on the refugee experience; it explains why people leave their homes, and what they face when (or if) they arrive at their final destination. Often this includes barriers which appear almost insurmountable for individuals, and explains why refugees naturally gravitate to communities of fellow displaced countrymen and women for survival and support. A central theme of the book is the tension which arises when desperate people see no alternative but to leave their homes, yet find little or no welcome at the end of their truly awful journeys.
The book is an important contribution to what will remain a world-wide problem for decades. The element of magical realism perhaps reminds us that in a world where distance is collapsing, “windows” will open through which desperate people will escape.
Georgia Blain, Between a Wolf and a Dog, $29.99
This is a novel that will move you to tears. While completing the work, the writer found out she was suffering from brain cancer, the same fate facing Hilary, one of the characters in the book, and the mother of the main character, Ester. Hilary is widowed and determined to take control of her life and the manner of her death, which she does, independently of her family—food for thought as we all debate the ethics and other issues surrounding end-of-life planning.
Ester is a family therapist, but her own family dynamics and relationships don’t appear to benefit from her professional skills. She is estranged from both her sister and her ex-husband, although by the end of the book you are hopeful there will be some sort of reconciliation, perhaps brought about by the death of their mother.
Although the issues explored are all difficult and often painful, the book is a celebration of the capacity of people to deal with the complexity of everyday life. As one critic said, “…a joyous tribute to the beauty of being alive.”
Georgia Blain’s early death, which occurred a few days before that of her mother, Anne Deveson, is a great sadness for all Australians. Vale two great women.
Zoe Morrison, Music and Freedom, $32.99
Zoe Morrison has a broad and interesting background in music and in issues surrounding violence against women, two themes at the heart of this award-winning first novel.
Music and Freedom is the story of a young girl from country Victoria whose life is transformed when she wins a scholarship to Oxford to study music. Her early days there are marked by loneliness and overwhelming homesickness, but she gradually becomes absorbed in the life and culture, and seems destined for a successful career as a concert pianist. A disastrous marriage follows with a cruel, abusive husband who ensures that her music career is cut short. We first meet her as a frail 70 year old woman, tying up the ends of her life, filing and discarding notes and books, when she hears through her wall the strains of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto Number 2, the demanding piece that marked the end of her career.
Then follows the account of her friendship and mentoring with a young musician next door, as they struggle together to conquer the Rach 2. (At this point you might want to revisit the film Shine to remind yourself of another musician who was undone by the Rach 2).
Despite the violence and the squandering of a professional life, the story is, in its own way, uplifting and optimistic. As a first novel it is yet another example of the prodigious talent of Australian writers. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Heather O’Connor
I remember trying to read Flaubert’s Parrot years ago and vowing not to try anything by Julian Barnes again. Wrong. I have completely changed my mind – might even go back to it! Early this year I read his 2011 Booker Prize winner, The Sense of an Ending, and then picked up this latest book which I liked even more. It is an account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), arguably the most famous Russian composer of the 20th century. His life spans the 1917 Russian Revolution, two world wars, the rise and fall of Stalin and the worst years of the Cold War. His choice to stay within Russia and to reach some sort of accommodation with those in authority (“The Power”) is fascinating. His despair, his depression, the conflict of whether to co-operate and survive as a musician or rebel and possibly die, or to live in exile, makes this an important and in some ways a monumental book (at less than 200 pages).Barnes provides us with glimpses of the lives of his contemporaries – Russian musicians and writers who did choose exile rather than be controlled by the State. The references are so fascinating that you will be prompted to go off and find more about their lives as well. This is a great introduction to one of the giants of the 20th century, as well as an analysis of the struggle to live a life of integrity in the face of overwhelming power and control. Highly recommended.
Annie Dunne, by Sebastian Barry, $19.99
One of the greatest joys of my life is reading almost anything written by almost any Irish writer – and Sebastian Barry is in my top five favourites. Over Christmas I read Days Without End, and then found Annie Dunn. Set in the 1950s in Ireland, it could have been describing the lives of 19th century rural women. So little had changed for those who struggled on marginal farming land, who were unmarried and who relied so heavily on themselves and their relationships with family and neighbours. Annie and her cousin Sarah manage a small farm by themselves; as “spinster aunts” they also take on the responsibility for two young relatives whose parents are away in London looking for work. The book describes the everyday challenges of unrelenting work and the precarious ability to survive when faced with such decisions as selling their only horse, thus their only means of transport.
Annie’s existence relies entirely on the continuing support of Sarah who has provided her with a home in exchange for her labour. The relationship between the two women is so touching it occasionally brought tears to my eyes. Just the description of their work together on washing day tells it all. But there are also extremely grim issues of abuse, of the vulnerability of women living without men, and of the uncertainty facing those without a home to call their own.
Sebastian Barry’s writing is often described as poetic, and Annie Dunn is the ultimate example of that truth – it is really beautiful. In 230 pages he packs in a fabulous description of Irish country life, of families, of the essential decency of humanity in the face of the dark side. Treat yourself to reading it straight through.
I haven’t read any book by Margaret Drabble for years, so this was a bit of trip down memory lane. I can’t remember her being quite so “earnest” – I’ll have to re-read some of her earlier works. One reviewer of this, her nineteenth novel, remarked that people under 60 might not get much out of this book, but for those of us on the other side, it is an excellent survey of so many of the issues that come with ageing. The main character, Francesca Stubbs, is in her 70s and still working and travelling in her capacity as an assessor of programs and housing for the elderly – “housing for the refusing-to-die.” That will ring a bell for many of us! She is also still preparing and delivering meals for her ex-husband (which I found a bit hard to believe). More interestingly, she remains a loyal and devoted friend to women with whom she has shared years of intimacy. This aspect of her life seemed to me the most believable and touching of the many relationships described in the book.
Her relationships with her children are complicated, but again, the way she handles both daughter and son are believable and—strange words perhaps—decent and respectful. The challenging aspect of her life that struck me most was how she was dealing with her own ageing, and in particular, facing up to what she calls “the thinning of emotions” – finding it hard to recall “passionate and ridiculous emotions of her youth and middle age …” For anyone facing the latter third of their lives, this is as good an introduction to the process as any, certainly more engaging than the myriad of “how to” books on the subject!
I think I have mentioned before how excited I get when my favourite authors bring out a new book: here we go again! Ian McEwan has surpassed himself this time: the novel is short (200 pages) and can easily be read in one sitting—which I did. The narrator is his youngest ever—in fact, a third-term foetus. He’s described as a modern day Hamlet, who lies helpless in his mother’s womb, listening to her plot to kill her husband, the father of the foetus.
The co-plotter is her brother-in-law, a truly horrible character and the direct opposite of his sensitive brother (although there is a twist there too). The conspirators drink copious amounts of wine and enjoy a vigorous sex life, both of which impact directly on our foetus, whose philosophising about the state of the world is worth reading as a stand-alone commentary (see, especially, pages 25-27).
This book is a gem—so may well McEwan live another ten years and continue to produce such fascinating work. He has promised not to write about golf, income tax or the VAT. Other than that, his imagination shows no signs of diminishing. McEwan really is the grand old man among novel writers, and Nutshell is amongst his best.
Reviewed by Sarah Gardiner
Stories of family dysfunction are, for some, new information. For others, reading Yasmine’s story will give the feeling of not being alone. Even the cover of this book contributes to its meaning: the face of a young girl with the title printed over her mouth. Silenced. The young girl is in fact Yasmine, herself, at eighteen years of age when she started writing her book.
Yasmine Bonner’s writing, so the blurb on the back tells us, is ‘straight-forward and sharp-shooting’. I agree. In fact the strength of the book is the matter of fact style. It is writing that reinforces the reality of her tale.
Yasmine’s story is of the horrors of her early life. These horrors kept happening, seemed expected of her and her story was invalidated. This is what other incest victims experience. This book also tells about cultural denial.
I read the ‘good’ bits of Yasmine’s life with interest. I got a real sense of place, the feel of her home. There are evocative descriptions of young girlhood, school life and friends as she grows through her teenage years. Her life in Perth with many sisters, and the later addition of two brothers, is fun.
I read of Yasmine’s confusion. Her subsequent behaviour led her to being labelled a ‘troublemaker’.
A difficult time from her early childhood through to her eventual escape from her father.
This year Yasmine and her husband moved to their property in Brogo. Apparently Yasmine is a keen gardener (she and her husband are about to plant 400kgs of garlic!) and enjoys her beloved Shetland dogs. She published her book in 2015. The book is available online through Amazon.
Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, $29.99 (reviewed October 2016)
Chris Cleave in his notes at the conclusion of the book tells us that he was inspired to write this book as a tribute to his maternal grandfather, Captain David Hill of the Royal Artillery. Captain Hill served on the island of Malta, where near starvation was as challenging as the almost daily bombing raids by the Germans. Some of the facts of his service are reproduced in the novel, but otherwise, the plot is as imagined by the author. The first few chapters didn’t grab me, mainly because the main female character, Mary, was the 18 year old daughter of a local MP (presumably a conservative). She was obviously over-indulged and both she and her best friend were typical English upper-class pains. Mary hoped to become a spy or something equally glamorous when she volunteered at the outbreak of the Second World War. However, she is assigned to schools, and to her credit, insists on face-to-face teaching, at which she proves to be exceptional. Her character begins to develop as the reality of the blitz and other hardships of wartime kick in. Her romance with her superior (and later on, with his best friend) are quite moving, although I must admit that the romantic feelings of an 18 year old set against the tragedy of war strike me as a bit contrived. This is a book that improves as it goes along and in the end, leaves memories and impressions of war that are a tribute not just to his grandparent, but to all those who served and to those who waited.
PS: Another good book by Cleave is Gold (about Olympic athletes).
Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, $29.99 (August 2016) Heather O’Connor
I’ve made a vow to always the buy the book which wins the Stella Prize for women’s fiction, because it’s such a terrific addition to Australia’s literary life. The 2016 prize went to well-known author, Charlotte Woode, and the book is causing the same arguments amongst my reading friends as The Slap did a few years ago.
Two friends said is was the best and the most important book they had read for years; two couldn’t finish it, one commenting that it was taking misogyny to new levels, making The Handmaid’s Tale look quite tame. It is the story of a group of young women who are kidnapped, taken to a remote location from which escape proves impossible, starved, forced into hard labour, denied any comfort or dignity. It tells the struggle of individual women to survive, avoid further torture and/or rape by the men who are their guards. The misery is all-consuming; the small victories of the women hardly compensate for the unrelenting horror of the experience, although there is some hope glimpsed in the friendship of two of the women.
I’m still not sure what I think about it, but given the controversy that it is causing, the way in which it has polarized readers, perhaps it is important to read at least one book a year that sets your teeth on edge. I just know I was terribly relieved when I got to the end of it.
Elana Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels Text Publishing $22.99 (July 2016) Heather O’Connor
There are four books in this series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. The publication caused something of a literary sensation and jettisoned the author (who remains anonymous) into international fame. Each book traces a period of time in the lives of two women who maintained a friendship stretching from their childhood days in Napoli. I read the first two, and to be honest – that saw me out. It’s not that the story lines are not fascinating – the importance of long-term friendships, the challenges facing young women born into poor and confined circumstances, how women meet and overcome enormous obstacles to create interesting lives for themselves. However, the longer I read, the more I wanted to kick everyone along – it seemed to be taking an incredibly long time to tell what in effect, is a fairly simple story of human existence. But don’t take my word for it – millions of readers around the world have been captivated by the stories and the writing. Through the Triangle and Well Thumbed Books, the four books will be available in the library. I’d love someone who reads and loves them to write another review!
In the meantime, start to catch up with your Sisters in Crime reading for the second weekend in October. Sulari Gentill has agreed to come for the festival, and a couple of her books are in the library, and one is available to borrow from Well Thumbed
Lian Hearn Emperor of the Eight Islands: The Tale of Shikando, Hachette $29.99 (June 2016) Heather O’Connor
If, like me, you have been a huge fan of Tales of the Otori series (Across the Nightingale Floor et al), you will be so happy to know that this wonderful writer, now resident in Australia, has launched another series based in medieval Japan. This time, the central character is Shikanoko, a young man who has been made a sorcerer against his will. Despite numerous hair-raising encounters with evil spirits (and evil humans), assassins and ghosts, his innate goodness and the protection of his guardian spirits see him through to the end of this first in the series.
I confess to almost giving up after the first fifty pages, given the large number of people involved, the complexity of the relationships and my difficulty in understanding who was who. However, I am so pleased I persevered, because once I got over the panic of wondering which character was trying to unseat which Emperor etc, I just devoured it – didn’t look up for nearly two days.
Lian Hearn has spent years researching Japanese history and language, and she brings to this book the same skills and respect for the culture as she did in the Otori series. Even if you are not into fantasy, give yourself the gift of reading this over the winter months – it is fantastic
Sulari Gentill, Gentlemen Formerly Dressed, Pantera Press $22.99 (May 2016) Heather O’Connor
In the lead-up to the Sisters in Crime weekend extravaganza in Cobargo and Bermagui (second weekend in October, 2016), I have been seeking out Australian women writers of crime. Sulari Gentill was born in Sri Lanka, but emigrated here at the age of seven, so I’m sure it’s OK to claim her as ours. She trained as a lawyer, (having abandoned her first love, astrophysics), then turned to fiction writing, creating a series of historical crime fiction books. Her hero is Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Australian artist whose friends and companions are bohemian-types, typical of those abroad in the 1930s. He is also an amateur sleuth whose adventures are set in countries around the world, and whose social standing brings him into contact with real-life historical figures such as Churchill. Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, various politicians, including Nazis in Germany and Blackshirts in England before the second World War.
Gentlemen Formerly Dressed is one of eight in the series; it begins with a bizarre murder in London where Rowly lands after escaping from the Nazis in Germany. The bizarre world of the English aristocracy is navigated by our hero and his left-leaning friends as they determine to prove the innocence of a young woman falsely accused of the murder of her eccentric uncle (found dead in a fluffy nightgown – please read on!)
Sulari Gentill lives in Batlow and as well as working on her award-winning novels, also produces truffles, and draws upon the editorial skills of her historian husband whose special era of interest is the 1930s, hence her detailed knowledge of the social context in which her hero is carrying on his investigations.
Perhaps she can be persuaded to come over the mountains to the Sisters in Crime weekend??
Yann Martel, The High Mountains of Portugal, Text Publishing $29.99 (April 2016) Heather O’Connor
I confess that the reason why I chose this book was because of a recent trip I took to Portugal, not to mention that The Life of P, by the same author, is just about everyone’s favourite. If I thought it was a bit out there, it is as nothing compared to this ‘magic realism’ (I think that’s how you would describe it).
The book is in three distinct parts, each with a strong link to the high mountains of Portugal, beginning in 1904 and covering the next five decades. The first section, entitled Homeless recounts the story of a young man who is on a quest to find a treasure in the mountains, and to assist him, he borrows one of Portugal’s first cars to help him on his way. The book is almost worth reading just for the descriptions of the car and the challenges it presents to this young non-driver.
Thirty five years later, under the heading Homeward, a pathologist is tackling a murder mystery worthy of Agatha Christie. The clues all point back to the adventures of our young hero from Homeless. Finally in Homecoming, we move to the story of a Canadian professor who moves to Portugal to recover from the grief of losing his wife, and in one of the many strange twists to the story, finds himself taking along a young chimpanzee as his chief companion. If this all sounds a bit contrived and confusing, don’t be put off – the writing is beautiful and there are great descriptions of deep love and tragic loss. A worthy follow on from Pi.
Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord, Hachette Australia, $34.99 (March 2016) Heather O’Connor
Australian award-winning author, Geraldine Brooks, brings to each of her books a completely different voice, and her latest novel, The Secret Chord, doesn’t disappoint those of us who hang out for each of her offerings. Her first novel, Years of Wonder, was set in 17th century Britain, March moved to America in the 19th century, People of the Book, spanned the centuries, based in Sarajevo, then back to 17th century America with Caleb’s Crossing. Each is a gem; if you haven’t discovered this fabulous author make 2016 the year you treat yourself to each of her books – my favourite is The People of the Book. With The Secret Chord, she brings her vivid imagination to the life of King David from his time as a young shepherd, through his rise to power and his fall from grace. He is a morally complex character and hero, and through him, Brooks again draws us into an historical period of which we may not have much knowledge. I found the first sections a bit hard going – especially details of military battles, which leave me a bit cold I must confess. I skipped over some of this, and by the end of the book, she had me yet again feeling that I had really learnt about a culture that hitherto was a bit of a mystery.
Carolyn Hirsh, Politics, Death and Addiction, Brolga Publishing. (February 2016) Heather O’Connor
Carolyn Hirsh is a Melbourne-based writer whose memoir, Politics, Death and Addiction, was short-listed for the Finch Memorial Prize, 2013. This is a story of love, tragedy, family, professional life, addiction and recovery.
At the heart of Carolyn’s life has been her commitment to social justice while at the same time, she constantly juggled responsibilities associated with being a sole parent, after she was widowed as a young wife and mother. A product of her time (and her gender), she worked and studied to improve her qualifications and her ability to support her daughters. She joined the Labor Party and again, after a long struggle, won pre-selection for a seat in the Victorian Parliament. She went on to become the first woman in Victoria’s history to be made a parliamentary whip, and retained throughout her time as an MP a passion for accessible housing for low-income earners, and for educational opportunities for adults.
If Carolyn’s book had just covered these issues, it would be still be a gift for those of us who are fascinated by the journeys of people who contribute to public life. But the story of a mother dealing with the unbelievable sorrow of the suicide of her daughter adds a totally different dimension. Her subsequent addictions to poker machines and to alcohol are described with great honesty and sadness, and will surely be an inspiration to anyone struggling with the same issues. Her eventual recovery and the adoption of her new life as a writer provide even more inspiration.
This is a book that doesn’t shirk from the hard issues. The writing of it has been part of Carolyn’s recovery, and is also an extension of her determination to support and affirm others who have suffered family tragedies. Her personal and professional self-analysis is a great gift to the community for which she has worked so tirelessly and to her family and friends.
Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last, Bloomsbury $32.99 (December 2015) Sarah Gardiner
Lucky for us, Margaret Atwood is still turning them out. Fifty-five publications to date: fiction, poetry, essays and children’s books. I have always enjoyed the work of this Canadian author, especially her futuristic stories such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake.
The Heart Goes Last tells a similar story of an horrific future age of economic collapse and high tech solutions. For some it is a life of poverty and crime while others nestle into the security of a model town. This book is not a sci-fi fantasy but a marvellous jigsaw of utopia and age old human emotions. People still cheat and Elvis still lives. The many twists and turns leave the reader, like the characters, not knowing what to believe. Always there is a lurking horror and the really creepy stuff actually creates a happy ending.
A very easy read, funny and scary. The Heart Goes Last will renew your faith (or despair) in the longevity of humanity and make you paranoid.
Pat Barker, Noonday, Hamish Hamilton, $32.99 (November 2015) Heather O’Connor
Noonday completes the story of Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville, the two previous novels being Life Class and Toby’s Room. It is the first time that Pat Barker has written about the Second World War, her Booker Prize winners being set in the period of the First World War (The Regeneration Trilogy). She places the three friends, who had been together in the Slade School of Art in their youth, in the 1940 London blitz, the descriptions of which constitute the strongest element of the book. The despair, destruction and sheer terror of the nightly bombings are described with the same skill with which her earlier books capture the horrors of the 1914-1918 war. The three all work as volunteers (ambulance drivers, wardens), rostered at night to attend the innumerable fires and collapsed buildings, while at the same time, grappling with the problems of everyday life and relationships. I’m not sure the characters ring quite as true as they did in her earlier novels, and this trilogy doesn’t reach the heights of Regeneration. Nonetheless, Pat Barker remains one of my all-time favourites.
Many thanks to everyone at the Triangle who continue to support us readers by purchasing a book every month which eventually ends up in the library – at 12 books a year, averaging $30.00 each, the scheme is very generous and of benefit to us all – especially me, who gets to choose from the new best-sellers.
Happy reading over Christmas!