Monday, November 1, 2010

An Angel at my Table

I’ve moved into a new place. It’s furnished, even down to having a few books on the shelf in the lounge room. I’d heard of An Angel at my Table, so I picked it up and decided to read it.

I realise now that I’d heard of it because it’s been made into a movie. I haven’t seen it, but after having read the book, I can understand why it was made into a film. It’s an astounding story.

The story opens with Janet travelling from her hometown Oamaru to Dunedin where she is going to start training to be a teacher. The train passes Seacliff, a town famous for its institution for the mentally ill. I call it an institution because in those days, that’s what those places were. To call it a psychiatric hospital is, I think, to endow it with legitimacy that it probably didn't deserve. I don’t know much about mental health care, but I like to think that modern-day care has progressed from what is depicted in this book.

At the time, as she sat on the train, Janet wasn’t to know that she would end up at Seacliff. Living with her frugal Aunty Isy while training at Dunedin Training College comes with benefits — Janet loves her independence, but her loneliness is extreme. Her personality doesn't lend itself to socialising and she seems desperate to please others and stay out of their way. She is pleased when her parents tell her that Aunt Isy speaks highly of her as a boarder: “She says you’re no trouble at all, she scarcely knows you’re in the house”. Yet her urge to please people like Aunty Isy only feeds her loneliness as she feels less and less as though she can find her ‘place in the world’.

Janet is extremely shy, awkward and self-conscious. She doesn’t ‘fit in’ and she is harshly punished for it. After realising that she can not be a teacher, she attempts to take her own life. She is then declared schizophrenic and told that she will be an institution ‘for life’. I find it so amazing (and terrifying) that such a brilliant literary talent could have come so close to being snuffed out, simply because she had a personality that was a little bit odd. She is saved by her writing when one of her books is published the day before her scheduled lobotomy.

I found the way she described her relationship with her family incredibly moving. She loves them but hates them at once. She sees herself in them and she doesn’t like what she sees. In her mother, especially, she painfully recognises that she and her siblings drained whatever independence and personality her mother once had and instead created a self-sacrificing woman who lived only for her family. I can’t help but think that so many women (and maybe men too?) grow up seeing this in their mothers and struggle, like Janet does in the story, to come to terms with the responsibility they must bear for the transformation and theft of their mothers in this way.

I was astonished at the length of some of Frame’s sentences. Yet very rarely were they unwieldy or difficult to follow. I constantly tell my students to keep their sentences short, because long sentences are only do-able if you have mastered punctuation and grammar, and not many people have. Janet Frame certainly has. I don’t normally like novels that are written by poets because of the style that I often struggle with — too flowery, descriptive and slow for my liking — but I really enjoyed this book, and I have the utmost respect for the style of writing in it. I must admit I skimmed over most of the little poems. That didn’t seem to take anything away from the reading experience.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach is a psychological love story. Taking us into the minds of two young lovers in the early 1960s, McEwan tells the story of love gone wrong. Florence, a gifted and dedicated violinist, and Edward, a sensitive, budding historian, meet at a political activist meeting neither of them really wanted to attend. There is attraction from both sides, and a courtship begins. The tension in the story is the couple’s inability to consummate their love, and more specifically, their inability to even mention the problem. Both are virgins. Edward wants to have sex, but Florence does not. Although this is a tired gendered stereotype, McEwan mainly avoids perpetuating it by exploring the problem carefully and considerately from both perspectives.

The story opens on the Dorset Coast in England with the couple sitting in their hotel room having dinner after their wedding. It is a very awkward situation—Edward wonders why they can’t simply abandon their meals and run into the bedroom, and Florence realises with horror that this is what they ‘should’ be doing. None of this is spoken.

The story of their courtship to date is told via flashbacks until the moment we return to the present uncomfortable dinner table. The story is narrated by both Florence and Edward, depending on whose life is being reflected upon. We learn that Edward was raised by his father, who is the local headmaster, because his mother was brain damaged. I am not entirely sure of the significance of this in the story. Were we meant to feel sympathy for him? Did the absence of a functional mother figure in his life somehow affect his choice of spouse or his penchant for getting into punch-ups as a young man?

We learn that Florence, raised in a middle-class family, was an only child and that her mother was an academic but was emotionally cold. At times it seems that McEwan wants us to believe that Florence’s mother’s lack of affection for her daughter is partly to blame for Florence being the way she is regarding sex. Yet, there is also a murky undertone of past sexual abuse at the hands of her father, which McEwan clearly wants us to ponder as a reason for Florence’s abhorrence for the idea of sex.

On Chesil Beach is not a long story. It’s a close examination of intimacy and incompatibility, is painful to read in spots and the characters are not particularly endearing. This is standard fare for McEwan novels. The beauty of the novel lies in McEwan’s ability to get inside his characters’ heads and convince the readers they are real. I have read reviews that criticise this book for its lack of plausibility. For me, the characters’ inability to communicate was frustrating, but understandable. I found the characters perfectly believable, and even saw myself in Florence at times.

Without giving the plot away, I thought the last section of the book was aimless and quite boring. If McEwan had omitted this part, I think it would be an outstanding short story. As it stands it is a very good, but not outstanding, novel.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is my favourite book. I return to it every couple of years, and manage to get caught up again and again in its gothic beauty and suspense.

When I was reading this book recently, my partner asked me ‘What sort of a read is it?’ and I struggled to answer. At first I wanted to say it was a romance, but then I thought....wait a minute, there is very little romance in this book. Then I thought ‘drama’, but that does not seem adequate. It is not necessarily a character-driven book either. It is, however, most definitely suspenseful, but more than that too. Put simply, Rebecca (and all the other du Maurier novels I’ve read) is impossible to classify. It is dark and suspenseful, with characters in it who are not particularly admirable. It is also beautiful. I don’t often think of novels as ‘beautiful’, but Rebecca is very beautiful.

Rebecca de Winter has been dead a year, but her ghost haunts the new Mrs de Winter—the narrator, whose name is never revealed. Rebecca is everything that the narrator is not—beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent, charming and self-assured. Rebecca hunted, sailed, held parties and was a brilliant conversationalist. Our narrator, on the other hand, cuts a poor figure in her poorly cut clothing, unfashionable hairstyle and school-girl language. All she can do is sketch—referred to at times by characters as her ‘little hobby’. Filling Rebecca’s shoes as Maxim’s new wife and the lady of Manderley is extremely arduous for our artless and self-conscious narrator. Her self-consciousness is, at times, excruciating, particularly when dealing with the imposing housekeeper Mrs Danvers.

If the new Mrs de Winter isn’t already sensitive of her status as a woman replacing someone's deceased wife, Mrs Danvers sees to it that she is fully aware of her inadequacies compared to Rebecca. It is clear that Mrs Danvers loved Rebecca deeply. In fact, some have suggested she and Rebecca were lovers.

Mrs Danvers is unable to grieve and the extent of her obsession with keeping the memory of Rebecca alive becomes horribly clear as time passes. She cannot accept the narrator as the new lady of Manderley and sets out to destroy her. This should not be difficult, given the weak and passive (but somehow, lovable) character of the new Mrs de Winter. Events, however, transpire to guide the story in an unexpected direction.

Du Maurier uses flowers, gardens and the weather to set the tone throughout the novel. I didn’t even know what a rhododendron was, but somehow I managed to realise that their wild, uncontrollable and almost painful beauty, as depicted in the novel, meant some sort of horror was on its way. The suspense is built beautifully with bad weather and untamed gardens all of which is overseen by the ghost of Rebecca who seems to haunt every page.

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

I borrowed this book from my younger sister while I was visiting my family in Brisbane after having attended a conference at the University of Queensland. I was in semi-holiday mode so I thought I’d pick something from my sister’s extensive bookcase that looked like a nice easy read, but not dumbed-down. When my eyes rested on ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ something registered in my brain as though I had heard the title before. I saw that it had won an award (The Orange Prize for Fiction) and thought maybe that’s where I had heard it. Anyway, as I picked it off the shelf I felt the same feeling I feel whenever I start a new novel that I know nothing about—a mixture of apprehension, hope and excitement. I can now say that I made an excellent choice because the story was extremely though-provoking and has stayed with me for days.

Eva is a 50-something woman writing letters to her husband. She writes to him about their son, Kevin, who committed mass-murder at his high school at the age of 15, and is now in prison. Her letters take the reader on a journey starting at Eva’s life before she had Kevin—a time she was absorbed in her career and her (very happy) relationship with her husband. She was happily child-free and she intrigues the reader by discussing her ambivalence to start a family and relating how she decided ultimately to have a child to ‘turn a page’ in her life. No longer content with being ‘so happy’, she wanted something new.

We learn how Eva felt as though Kevin shunned her as a mother from the day he was born. As the mother of a mass-murderer she has come under scrutiny for her mothering skills, or lack thereof by the mass media, the legal system, the parents of those killed and society at large. As she takes the reader on a thoughtful chronological journey up to the day Kevin committed the crime, we are forced to consider the nature/nurture debate: are we who we are because we are born that way? Or do we become who we are? Eva presents Kevin as a case that contributes to the belief that nature dictates who we become. At the same time, she can’t help but feel some responsibility for the way he turned out by perhaps not loving her son enough. Are these feelings of Eva’s a product of a society such as America’s where people seek to place blame? Are these feelings particularly encouraged by a society that places a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the mother when a child turns out ‘wrong’?

Unlike many violent and criminal youth, Kevin was raised in a middle-upper class household where there was no violence and where the parents were still together and still in love. He was not deprived materially or emotionally. The fundamental question that Eva and most of the community continued to ask since the crime is ‘why?’ That is the question explored in the book as Eva mulls over what she did right and wrong—how did she contribute to produce a child that would commit a horrendous crime? The question is thoroughly investigated but, predictably there is no answer. Eva ends by asking another question: what kind of love, if any, can a mother give her son after he has done something as heinous as Kevin did? And how will she be regarded by society by the choice she makes?

I have mentioned a lot of questions, and have given no answers. That is the power of this book. It is, after all, fiction. It doesn’t claim to make any scientific judgements about the nature/nurture debate, but it does provoke thought and this is the art of a good novel.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

It wasn’t all bad – there were some entertaining bits to it. But it was mostly bad. Saturated in self-pity, self-absorbed and boring are a few of the ways I would describe this book.

I’ll start with the first one – self-pity. We find Elizabeth sobbing on the floor of her bathroom in the middle of the night, something, she reveals, she has been getting up to do regularly over the last few months. This is the bathroom in the lovely apartment she shares with her husband in New York. Basically, Elizabeth appears to want to leave a relationship she thought would last forever but can’t work out why she would want to leave. At this stage, I can’t help but feel her pain. Everyone has been in a dysfunctional and unhappy situation that appears to outsiders as an ideal and happy situation. When something that is supposed to be right feels so wrong, it hurts. And it’s difficult to come to terms with. Of course, in these situations it’s only natural to question your own role in this: why can’t I just be happy with this? What have I done to make myself so unhappy? Why can’t I just chill out???

Elizabeth’s divorce is bitter—her husband cannot forgive her for leaving. This too is something anyone can sympathise with. The problem is that we know nothing about her ex-husband and nothing about the relationship. She justifies this by saying that omitting such details is out of respect for her husband. Certainly, this is well-intentioned and honourable, but it leaves a flimsy foundation for readers to understand her current turmoil. In place of this context, we are bombarded with descriptions of her angst, her feelings, her sobbing, and inner conflicts. Her conversations with ‘herself’ and those with God are painful and I found myself cringing whenever she invited us to listen. Is this the American ‘cultural cringe’? Do Americans find this embarrassing? Or is it just me?

This brings us to self-absorption. Elizabeth’s self-absorption drives this book. It’s premised on her looking inward at herself. The subtitle on the cover of the edition I have reads 'One woman’s search for it all'. I would argue that it is in fact one woman’s search for it all for herself. But the fact that this is omitted probably simply means that it is axiomatic. Society is obsessed with navel-gazing—looking inward rather than outward; individualising rather than contextualising. This is, I think, particularly true for American society. Oprah Winfrey is the torchbearer for this type of introspection that is supposed to be good for us. Looking for your inner self will, apparently, solve all your problems.

Let’s now talk about boring. I skipped huge chunks of this book. The first place I did this was when she started giving me a history lesson on Rome. If I wanted to learn about the history of a city I would read a book by a historian.

I’ll admit that I skipped a lot of the parts in which she talked about God. So, the whole chapter on India was a bit of a drag. An example of this is her mind-numbing conversations with the Texan (what was his name?), who was a caricature of a man, teeming with pithy and humorous nuggets of advice. He was reduced to a mouthpiece for wise and grounded advice, and we learnt little about him. This made it difficult for me, as a reader, to like him. I didn’t dislike him either. And that’s the problem –Gilbert did not allow any of her characters to demonstrate any depth. This lack of character was not exclusive to the Texan, but manifest in all other characters too. Her psychologist friend was also reduced to pithy one-liners or sage nuggets of wisdom about how Gilbert should live her life.

Apart from being boring and self-indulgent, this book was at times, offensive—a much more serious charge. I was offended by her simplistic and patronising descriptions of Balinese culture. (The only more difficult language than Balinese is Martian). Yes, the Balinese smile a lot, and their society may be very structured compared to Western societies, but to describe such a complex thing as a social structure in broad sweeping generalisations reeks of Orientalism. Frankly, her desire to spend 3-4 months with a ‘medicine man’ stinks of Orientalism as well. When you look to other cultures and argue that they know better than Western culture because of their ‘authenticity’ and ‘simplicity’, you are being racist. Cultures and societies are complex things, and to describe them purely in contrast with your own is very easy, but it is also potentially dangerous. Why? Because it perpetuates stereotypes rather than admitting that the culture might be quite complex, pluralistic and difficult to articulate.

To Gilbert’s credit, she starts to acknowledge the complexities of Balinese culture halfway into the Balinese section by tracing its history. Importantly, she also acknowledges her ignorance by admitting that her understanding of Balinese people was simplistic and na├»ve until she began researching about the island’s past. Acknowledging your ignorance is important for a writer because it informs the reader that what they are reading is subjective. Apart from some naiveties and ignorance, I think it is also crucial for a writer to reveal a lot more about themselves in order to make their stories believable. Gilbert reveals a lot about herself, to be sure. She even partly divulges her masturbation habits—this is rarely spoken about by women in autobiographies.

However, baring one’s soul is not the same as reflecting on how your position in society affects your writing. It is crucial for a writer to let the readers know that your values and beliefs probably impact the way you view and experience the world. As far as I’m concerned, failure to do so is dishonest. Her experience in Italy, for example, for me was simply unbelievable. I have been to Italy and I certainly did not gain weight. If I had been there any longer (than 3 weeks) I probably would have lost weight. Eating out in Italy is extremely expensive. Everything is expensive in Italy! Somehow she managed to rent a unit on her own, eat out all the time, take lessons in Italian, and go on short trips without mentioning that this is something only the extremely privileged can do. Of course, I realise she is a middle-class white American woman, but it seemed to me as I read the book, that she didn’t realise it. More significant though was her failure to acknowledge how her middle-class existence may have influenced the experiences she was able to have in Italy, as well as in India and Bali. Perhaps we were meant to assume her middle-class existence, but her neglect to situate herself as such was disappointing and I lost some respect for the value of her story. Certainly she didn’t completely neglect it—I think the she briefly mentioned it at the beginning. Her travels were in fact funded by the publisher for the book that emerged from it.

Dead Famous by Ben Elton

The title Dead Famous encapsulates very well Elton’s message in this book: people will go to extreme lengths to become famous in contemporary society. The setting, a reality television show called House Arrest is based on the once very popular Big Brother. (It was published in 2001, around about when Big Brother was popular, I guess.)

The characters, or inmates, as they are called throughout the book, are ten young English people who compete for 1 million pounds in prize money, but also, it seems, to be the most banal. ‘Wicked! Amped-up! I really love yez’ are the catch-cries of the inmates who want desperately to be loved by each other, but more importantly by those on the outside – those who seal their fate by voting someone off in the typical style of reality television shows. While they strut their stuff and attempt to show only their good sides on camera (which is all the time) the real people pulling the strings are those behind the scenes—the show’s producers and editors. This is a darkly cynical take on reality television shows which depicts contestants as mere fodder for television producers’ greedy and mercantile ambitions.

This book is fundamentally a critical social commentary on the cult of celebrity. Specifically it is a critique of the type of fame that has emerged with the advent of reality television. Constable Coleridge, the chief investigator in murder case of one of the inmates, represents the voice of reason as he repeatedly, though sometimes self-consciously, corrects his junior colleagues’ use of the English language and other incomprehensible traits he regards as defining the upcoming generation. Traits he believes are ruining the English way of life as he knows it.

A thoroughly modern whodunit, Dead Famous will keep you on the edge of your seat—it’s a real page-turner. I read it over the course of 24-hours…literally could not put it down. (And at the risk of tooting my own whodunit trumpet, I guessed the murderer correctly halfway through the book ; )

Underground by Andrew McGahan

Underground is set a few years in the future. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, Australia became what you could ultimately call a police state with a view to ‘fighting the war on terror’. In the wake of the nuclear bombing of Canberra, police checks and Muslim ghettoization became standard practice. The central character is Leo, the property developer brother of the Prime Minister, Bernard, who was influential in steering Australia towards a police state. Leo and Bernard are twins and have not seen eye to eye since they were teenagers. In fact, they hate each other. So when Leo gets kidnapped by Muslim extremists during a cyclone, it is no surprise that his brother does not come to his rescue. The kidnap is the beginning of a race that ultimately ends in Leo becoming captive to powerful figures and thus writing his memoirs, which constitutes the book. The memoirs are addressed to his interrogators, written from his prison confinement narrating how he ended up there and what he thinks of the current political situation of Australia.

The beginning of the story was difficult to enjoy mainly because the narrator, Leo, was such an arsehole. I’m not sure if McGahan deliberately created Leo that way, or if he thought he was in fact a cool central character—your ‘typical aussie bloke’ perhaps. More than that, however, the point that McGahan was making—to put it simply and briefly, that a culture of fear (against terrorism and any other fundamentalism) will not work; it will only lead to the destruction of democracy and the triumph of tyranny—was made in such an obvious way I wanted to throw the book at the author’s face. ‘I get it!!!’ I wanted to scream at him, the way he was screaming his message at me through the pages. A little bit more subtlety would have had me on the edge of my seat. To be fair, the last third of the book did have me on the edge of seat, as the chase became very exciting and the conspiracy theories became grander. At a couple of points, however, I did find myself bellowing ‘preposterous!’ in response to some of the more ridiculous conspiracy theories. Like, how could Canberra be a functioning city and no-one know about it??? Where do the people who live there come from? Do they not talk to their family and friends who may not live in Canberra? Seriously, I think McGahan may have too little faith the intelligence of his fellow citizens.

Dirt Music by Tim Winton

Georgie is a 40-yr old woman who is living a strange existence with a partner she does not love, Jim, and his two sons. Jim is a fisherman in White Point in Western Australia and Georgie is a retired nurse who latched onto Jim after meeting him and his children on holiday in Lombok. Georgie’s days are filled with domestic chores and her nights are spent drinking and trawling the internet out of sheer boredom.

One early morning at the beach, she comes into contact with Luther Fox, a hermit who lives on the outskirts of the town, and a romance begins. The romance is a bit unbelievable—especially the development of it in the beginning. But all is forgiven because of Winton’s beautiful prose and descriptive powers that drew me in regardless of the plot.

Tension in the small town rises as secrets are slowly and painfully revealed to Georgie, who has felt like an outsider in the town she has lived in for three years. As Georgie had recently come to suspect, her husband Jim has a dark and nasty history. His despicable and incomprehensible personality comes to the fore when he learns of Georgie’s affair.

Georgie is not exactly a saint herself, and her indecision, passivity and complete selfishness is very frustrating because it continues to harm those around her, including her family. In fact, there is very little to like about Georgie, and I think the ability to create such compelling reading despite the disagreeable characters that populate the novel is a mark of a great writer.

Luther Fox, however, is a very complex and beautiful character. His love for his dead family is beautifully expressed in flashbacks. When the true nature of their relationship emerges as Fox becomes lost and delirious in the wilderness, it comes as a surprise but is resolved simply and gracefully in Fox’s mind.

Personally I am not a great fan of metaphorical writing and tend to prefer a rollicking read. Winton provides both in this novel. While the plot was thin in some spots, this did not take away any of the suspense and I found that I did not want to put it down.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich decides to do some ‘old-fashioned’ journalism—by which she means undercover ethnographic research—to learn more about the working poor of America. Specifically, she wants to find out how they survive on the minimum wage. She decides to spend three months each in three different parts of America performing low-paid jobs. She takes a small amount of money with her for setting up costs, and goes about starting her new life—finding somewhere affordable to live, and importantly finding low-paid work. An urban, working-poor “Survivor”, if you like. Unlike Survivor, however, we soon see that there is no safety net and no support from teammates for the working-poor.

To put it simply and briefly, this is a Marxist critique of capitalism. Or is that an oxymoron? Is a critique of capitalism automatically Marxist? Not sure about that, but the author does reference him now and then. She also does not hold back on judging the wealthy owners of the houses she cleans, indicating a loathing of the capitalist class (of which, in all honestly, she is a member). Herein lies the difficulty that accompanies any attempt to critique the capitalist system: Are our criticisms valid when we profit from the system—however little—ourselves? In a system where companies own companies who own companies, sometimes the line between capitalist owner and working class gets very blurry.

Ehrenreich gets jobs as a waitress, a room cleaner (for one day!), a cleaner attached to a maid agency, a retirement village ‘dietician’ and a sales assistant at Wal-Mart. If that sounds like a lot of jobs for nine months, it’s because—as Ehrenreich discovers—to survive in the world of low-paid work, you have to work at least two jobs.

Apart from the appalling level of pay given to people in these jobs, one of the most disturbing things to come out of this book was the exposure of housing unaffordability. Ehrenreich ended up staying in motel rooms for a lot of the time because she simply could not find affordable accommodation. People on very low wages, it seems, get caught in a catch-22 situation where they end up paying through the nose for motel rooms while ‘waiting’ for more affordable housing to become vacant. Sometime they must continue living in motels because they cannot find the deposit required to rent a property—staying in expensive motels means they can never accumulate the required amount of capital to make a start.

The work she does is not easy. In fact, it is physically gruelling—her foray into house cleaning demonstrated particularly well how arduous the work is. Her experience in housecleaning also demonstrated sexual inequality in the labour market which she did not explore fully. I think the book can be interpreted as a feminist text because even without articulating it, Ehrenreich illustrates that it is women who are doing all this low-paid work, and men who are managing them. The scene where she espies workmen outside one of the houses she is cleaning chugging down Gatorade while she and her colleagues sweat buckets but are not permitted to drink while inside the house (as per the rules their male manager has designed) is a beautiful but depressing picture of how some work (men’s work) is valued higher than other (women’s work). I wish Ehrenreich had discussed the feminisation of low-paid work further—this is a hole in her otherwise excellent Marxist expose of the inequalities that American-style capitalism has produced.

I am at a bit of a loss how to handle the conclusion. She revealed her true Marxist colours in the very last passage when she expressed her hope that the low-paid workers would one day rise in protest (the proletariat revolution? Finally?), yet she didn’t explore adequately the hypocrisy of her own life. She admits to living a middle-upper class lifestyle but doesn’t suggest any solutions for people like her who are, on the one hand ashamed of the inequalities in America, but on the other benefit from those very inequalities.

The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter

This book is written as a poem, but it is not difficult to read.

Overall I don’t think it said anything profound. But it is used as a text in first year English literature at some universities, so maybe I missed something.

The narrator is Jill, a private investigator. She falls in love with Diane, a lecturer of a young girl who has gone missing, and whose case Jill is researching. The young girl, Mickey, is found dead and battered.

There seems to be some superior voice throughout this book that ‘deviant’ sex is somehow better than ‘ordinary’ sex. This is implied through the lightly contemptuous description of Mickey’s parents who live in the North Shore and are boringly heterosexual. But at the end we discover that Mickey was a victim of that deviant sex, so I’m not sure what the point of the book was, to be honest.

I guess the main thread through the story was the love story between Jill and Diane. Jill fell desperately in love, while Diane was more interested in attaining another notch on her bedpost.

I didn’t really understand the point of the story. There were no redeeming characters in it. In particular, I found the treatment of female characters to be quite brutal. Mickey was dead; her mother was painted patronisingly as a sheltered north shore woman who wore floral dresses; Barbara, the wife of one of the academic poets Mickey was supposedly shagging, was jealous and tragic; and Diane turned out to be nasty, self-obsessed and quite evil. I guess the male characters weren’t exactly very likeable either, but there seemed to be an acceptance of that—even an elevation of them in spite of their flaws. Nick, Diane’s husband, for example, was someone you wanted to meet. Despite being the nastiest of all characters, he was mysterious and desirable.

To sum up, the book left me thinking: well that was an easy and relatively enjoyable read, but what was it trying to say?