Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dark Places by Kate Grenville and By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

Kate Grenville wrote Dark Places after the success of Lilian’s Story, a book whose central character is a woman who was sexually abused by her father as a child. Grenville said that she wanted to tell the ‘other side’ of the story. Why would anyone want to know the other side of that story? Telling that side of the story has the potential to paint a paedophile in a sympathetic light (is there a term for a paedophile who abuses his child?). But Grenville manages to avoid doing that. Instead, Albion Gidley Singer is a narrator who is almost impossible to sympathise with. Having said that, it was not an easy read. It made me uncomfortable and there were a couple of times when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue. Albion’s misogyny was uncomfortably overt, unquestioned and central to his smug and arrogant personality. A whole book dedicated to such a character was a little difficult to come to terms with. But in the end he was the pathetic character. Grenville sort of gave Lilian the ‘last laugh’ in Dark Places. If there could be a ‘laugh’ in such a horrible story. Lilian was, after all, raped by her father, went mad afterwards, declared insane and institutionalised. I haven’t read Lilian’s Story but am keen to do so now.

The story is set in the early late 1800s - early 1900s in Sydney. Albion is a well-to-do man who inherits his father’s stationery business. He has been excruciatingly aware of how he is regarded by others from a very young age. He is steamrolled into the role of ‘gentleman’ by his father and other people in his life, and learns—not quickly and not easily, but very thoroughly—the rules of masculinity. One of the central pillars of this masculinity was the incomprehension of women. Albion’s extreme self-awareness also included being self-conscious around women. There is a scene where he is utterly helpless as he hears a group of women, including his wife, mother and sister, laughing amongst themselves. Of course he suspects they are laughing at him. This scene encapsulates Albion’s mistrust of women because of his own insecurities. Albion is a shell. He is an empty man who fills the void with ‘facts’. From a young age he absorbed facts and this becomes a life-long hobby, but there are never enough facts, of course. Filling his void with facts is a way he assumes status and power. He deploys his facts to put down others, mainly women, and maintain his superiority over them. This enables him to present an image of who he believes he should be and who he assumes people see him as.

Everyone, at some stage in their lives, is aware of how they appear to others. For some highly self-aware people, they can feel as though they are playing the role of who they and others think they are, or ought to be. Albion is one such person. His body is a shell, and he plays the role of husband, father and pillar of the community. He is always hovering outside his own life, watching on.

I just finished reading another book where this phenomenon was also quite central in the protagonist’s narration. The narrator of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, Peter Harris, was also a middle-aged, middle-class male who was hyper self-aware. I preferred Grenville’s by a long shot. In fact, By Nightfall is the least enjoyable of Cunningham’s that I have read. I’ve only read two others—A Home at the End of the World and The Hours, and I thought they were both excellent—but I found his most recent book a bit annoying in spots. Peter is constantly questioning his actions and thoughts and this is made explicit with lots of brackets (parentheses). The overuse of brackets really got on my nerves. Am I being pedantic? I can’t remember brackets in Grenville’s Dark Places so she must have been able to communicate extreme self-awareness without using them. It’s interesting how a stylistic thing can have such an effect on my experience of the book. The characters were completely different too of course. Peter Harris was irritating in his middle-class existence but he wasn’t despicable like Albion Gidley Singer. I got a bit bored with the art references in By Nightfall as well. Peter is the owner of an art gallery, and his wife, Rebecca, also works in the art world. At the centre of the story is Rebecca’s younger brother Mizzy, who comes to stay with them, while attempting to sort himself out. He’s a drug addict who hasn’t found a place in the world yet, despite being well into his late twenties. He’s also beautiful and charismatic. So charismatic that he charms Peter into falling in love with him. Peter then has to question everything. All of a sudden he is willing to give everything up—his successful career, his long and stable marriage—to pursue a reckless relationship with the much younger drug-addicted brother of his wife. Peter realises this is madness and the depth of the feelings he has for Mizzy and what a relationship with Mizzy represents places his whole world into question. I was convinced, but frankly, not really very interested. I didn’t like any of the characters in By Nightfall. But I didn’t despise any either, like I despised Albion. So for me the book with the despicable character who repulsed me but compelled me to keep reading was more appealing than the book with the average and insipid character who failed to strike a chord.  

Sunday, October 23, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

For the last couple of weeks I’ve looked forward to going to bed every night just so I could get under the covers with this book. I’m usually quite tired by the time I start reading in bed, so I could often only get through about 10 pages before I started to fall asleep. Yesterday was a Saturday and I had heaps of spare time so I sat down in the middle of the day and finished it – I’m glad I did because there is a point towards the end of the story when you simply cannot put the book down, and that would have meant a really late night for me!

Marina works for a pharmaceutical company, Vogel in Minnesota. Her colleague and research partner Anders Eckman has gone to the Brazilian rainforest in search of the elusive Dr Swenson, who has been contracted by Vogel to conduct research on the Lakashi tribe. The thing is, she’s been there for about 50 years and is reticent about communicating with Vogel. So Anders is sent to see how the project is going. The project is to develop a fertility drug. You see, Lakashi women are able to have children for their whole lives. Vogel is keen to develop a fertility drug for women by exploiting whatever it is that enables Lakashi women to do this. This is a very interesting theme, given the contemporary trend of (usually middle-class) women delaying childbirth. On the surface, such a drug would be a dream—women could put off having kids until they were well and truly ready. We wouldn’t wake up aged 42 and think ‘oops, I forgot to have a child’. There would be no need to freeze eggs and the ‘declining fertility rate’ would be something that governments could wipe off their list of concerns. But of course, menopause also represents liberation from the risk of falling pregnant and the ability to fall pregnant at any age might not be the dream it first appears, especially given the deterioration of human bodies as we age.

Anyway, a few weeks after Anders leaves for Brazil, Vogel receives a letter in the post from Dr Swenson informing them that Anders has died from a tropical fever. Anders’ wife is obviously distraught and demands more details. She refuses to believe that Anders is dead and demands that someone else from Vogel go and investigate. Marina is sent.

Marina’s adventures in the rainforest certainly didn’t make me want to go near the place. Insects, humidity, snakes, spiders and cannibals are just some of the things she encountered. To say nothing of pregnant women in their 70s! The elusive Dr Swenson was Marina’s teacher and Marina and their relationship is an interesting one because Dr Swenson initially doesn’t remembers Marina, and it is just as well, given their history.

Dr Swenson is not happy to have her work interrupted and does not hide this, putting Marina in an uncomfortable situation. The research she is conducting is complicated and sensitive. She has invested her whole life into it and Vogel should just let her be so she can get the work done, so she says. Anders was pleasant but a nuisance, and Marina probably will be too.

There are two objectives to Marina’s journey to the jungle: to find out what happened to Anders so she can tell his wife; and to survey the progress of the project for Vogel. She discovers the truth about the project and eventually the truth about Anders. It is a thrilling ride with twists and heartbreaking turns. I finished the book wondering about Ann Patchett’s imagination. The ideas in the book are quite extraordinary and I wonder where she came up with them. None of the characters, apart from Dr Swenson’s chauffeur when she’s in Manaus, and the deaf child Easter, are particularly likeable, but they seem real.

It was a little bit predictable towards the end, but nevertheless beautifully written. I didn’t buy Marina taking Easter with her on her boat trip to the Hummoca tribe. If I could see what was coming as a reader, surely Marina could have had more foresight.

Apart from this, I heartily recommend this book. Not only is it a great read, it’s thought-provoking. I am very rarely moved to tears by a novel, but there were a couple of places in the book where I almost cried. That’s powerful.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Last Ride by Denise Young

Last Ride is an outback Australian tale told through the eyes of a young boy, Chook. Told in the third person, it’s not actually narrated by Chook, but the perspective is very much his. The story starts when Chook and his Dad, Kev, do a runner from what soon becomes clear is the scene of a violent crime. Chook is sort of used to travelling rough, as his father is not exactly the steady type who settles down in a nine to five job and gets a mortgage. But this particular adventure becomes very scary for Chook as his father leads them into increasingly troubling situations.

This book seems to do a beautiful job in demonstrating the effect of trauma on a small child. Chook’s flashbacks, and his methods of dealing with them are heartbreakingly sad. His attachment to his toy cars is very endearing and believable in a 10yr old boy. Through his flashbacks we learn that Kev is violent, bad-tempered and doesn’t have a very high opinion of women. Poor Chook never really had a chance in life with a father like Kev, and an absent mother. Of course, Chook does not understand his situation is dire, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want what a lot of other children have—a mother who cooks yummy food, a chance to go to school, and some stability in his life. He has the ordinary wants and needs of a child. When the two fugitives end up camping out western NSW, his inability to ‘rough’ it like his Dad, is charming and sad at the same time. Chook is scared to sleep out in the open; he is also afraid of swimming; he is hungry and tired.

Despite his lack of formal education, and his criminally inclined father, Chook seems to have a strong moral compass. His desire to check up on Max, who they left in a bad way back at the farm, and also to ensure that the flying doctor is ok is an indication of his understandably naïve but morally sound way of navigating the world. This is somewhat surprising given the nature of his father, Kev, who has a bad temper that tends to spill into criminal behaviour.

The love between the two, however, is always near the surface. The love between them gives us an insight into the complexities of Kev’s character. It is confronting for the reader to attempt to come to terms with Kev’s gentler and loving side when we’ve seen the nasty aspect of his character. On the one hand, I wanted him to be kind and loving to Chook, while on the other, I could see that it was, in a sense, futile, because they had come too far down the path of serious crime for anything positive to be at the end for either of them.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham

This is a story of three friends who, in their attempt to find their place in the world, try to redefine love and family. Bobby and Jonathon are childhood friends, growing up in Cleveland, and Clare is the woman they meet when they both end up living in New York. The three of them live together for some time in New York and in the process develop a love for one another. Theirs is not a love you normally read about in books, or see in movies. It is imperfect love, and sometimes selfish love. It changes too. By the end of the book, Clare appears to no longer love either of them. Is this not like real love?

Narrated by all three characters, as well as Jonathon’s mother Alice, this book is beautifully and thoughtfully written. All the characters are flawed, and all are looking for something they might be able to identify as love because they believe it will complete them. It is a deeply sad story about the fragility of people and the inconsistencies in people’s characters. The inconsistencies in this novel’s characters, however, unlike those in A Gate at the Stairs (my previous review), did not make the characters unbelievable. Instead the characters became profound, troubled, endearing and real.

As teenagers, Jonathon’s and Bobby’s relationship tipped over the edge of friendship into mild sexual exploration. Since parting ways almost ten years previously when they graduated from school, Jonathon has become openly gay, while Bobby remains a virgin. They are reunited when Bobby is forced to leave Cleveland and decides to seek out his only friend, Jonathon, who is now sharing a flat in New York with Clare. Their embarrassment about past sexual experimentation is assuaged by a new relationship of non-sexual love. One hot day, a most beautiful love scene takes place. This is an example of the overwhelming beauty that seeps through the pages of this book. Bobby is narrating.

We lay side by side on our towels, running the ice over our sweating skins. After a while he reached over and pressed his own ice cube against the mound of my belly. […] We didn’t talk any more about what we were doing. We talked instead about work and music and Clare. While we talked we ran ice over one another’s bellies and chests and faces. There was sex between us but we didn’t have sex—we committed no outright acts. It was a sweeter, more brotherly kind of lovemaking. It was devotion to each other’s comfort, and deep familiarity with our own imperfect bodies. As one cube melted we took another from the tray. Jonathon swabbed ice over my back, and then I did it to him. I felt each moment break, a new possibility, as we lay using up the last of the ice and talking about whatever passed though our heads. Above us, a few pale stars had scattered themselves across a broiling, bruise-colored sky (159-160).

For me, the saddest characters were Jonathon’s parents, Alice and Ned. Ned seemed to have such a heart-wrenchingly pathetic life, while Alice, who finally found happiness and love towards the end, presented a loving but lonely and isolated figure.

Jonathon himself was a very complicated character. In fact, I think he was a little bit too complicated and could have been developed better. It was clear, nevertheless, that he was very confused and was desperate to find his place in the world. Through Jonathon, the novel touches on the effect of AIDS on the gay community in 1980s New York. Themes of death, illness and our fear of them are weaved skilfully into the narration. Jonathon’s relationship with his lover, Erich, is another relationship that is explored with honesty so raw that sometimes it’s difficult to read.

Bobby was the most likeable character simply because he seemed so easy-going and happy to please everyone. The third part of the trio, Clare, who forms a romantic relationship with Bobby, was unlikeable; she was also the least believable of the characters. At times she seemed like a caricature of a fag hag—the older woman concerned with her fading looks who loves to party. And another small complaint: Jonathon’s and Bobby’s narrations were sometimes too similar. I would be reading away and think, ‘Who is this again?’

Apart from these quibbles, I really enjoyed this book. It’s not exactly a feel-good story that will put a spring in your step! But the story is original and though-provoking, and the writing style is incredibly beautiful. The major theme explored by this novel is our sense of always waiting for something better, particularly in terms of finding our place in the world, our ‘home’. This became particularly explicit at the end of the story when Jonathon, after storing his father’s ashes for years, finally decides to scatter them in a field near their home.

I just realized how ridiculous it is to hold on to my father’s ashes until I find some sort of perfect home for them. I’ve decided this is the perfect place (333).

There is no perfect place or time. There is no perfect love, no perfect family. Perhaps instead of waiting for perfection, the path to happiness is to decide that what we have right now is perfect.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs is a coming-of-age tale narrated by a 20 year old university student called Tassie. Tassie is the daughter of a boutique potato farmer in Dellacrosse and has come to Troy to attend a liberal-arts university. The story spans one year, and during this year, Tassie experiences a lot, including working as a nanny to a ‘biracial’ adopted child called Mary-Emma, and falling in love for the first time with a fellow student.

One thing I should mention before reviewing this book is that I am Australian and have never been to the US. What I know about the US I have learnt from television, movies and a couple of American friends. I have a feeling that most of the cultural references and a lot of the humour in this book went over my head.

It is difficult to describe Tassie’s character because I didn’t really get a good idea of what kind of a person she was. What I did feel, however, was that she was extremely annoying. The same could be said for the entire book. I was irritated by it for almost the whole time. If I weren’t reading it for the book club I’m in, I would have abandoned it halfway through. This story is self-indulgent, very boring in places, all over the place plot-wise and littered with characters that are unbelievable.

The story would often be interrupted by a thought process that would take us off on tangents, sometimes lasting for pages. At these times all I could think was ‘why am I being told this? I want to return to the main story.’ There were also many off-putting puns scattered throughout the narration.

The book was also written in such a self-congratulatory, wink-wink-aren’t-I clever kind of way that it was completely distracting. In some places, it was also plain lazy.

‘Not bad for an old gal, eh?’ said Sarah, breathlessly grinning and pink in the cheeks. I made a kind of smile—I have no idea what kind—and we them moved quickly to … (77)

‘I have no idea what kind’?? I’m not sure whether this grates because it’s lazy or because it’s unnecessary. On the one hand, I think that Moore was lazy to not attempt to describe what kind of smile it was, but on the other hand, I think she should have just allowed us to conjure up an image of a smile by simply leaving it at ‘I made a kind of smile’. By inserting the unnecessary extra line my imagination never makes it that far. Instead, my imagination is distracted. And I am annoyed.

Tassie was not the only character I had trouble believing in. Sarah, the adoptive mother to Mary-Emma, was also depicted in a confusing and superficial way. Sarah and Tassie could have been the same character such was their lack of defining qualities. Sarah was initially depicted as somebody who liked to be in control, someone who was desperate to be a mother. Yet she walked away from the hospital after picking up their new baby without looking at the baby’s health records, instead leaving it to her husband, Edward. This was completely unbelievable. But if you don’t develop your characters properly or give them any defining qualities, I suppose you can get away with allowing them to do anything!

The pages-long dialogues that wafted up the stairs to the playroom on Wednesday nights when Sarah and Edward hosted the support group for parents of biracial children were excruciating. Surely there is a better way of getting your point across. I skipped most of these clichéd conversations.

Tassie’s foray into love was an absurd twist on the story. If a story is a house, then this subplot was like a renovated bathroom with a chimney in it. I can understand the point of including a love story in a coming-of-age story; I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a romance in a story about a 20 yr old woman starting at university. I actually enjoyed reading about Tassie’s neediness and clingy desire to be loved, because that’s what I was like when I was younger (I like to think I’ve grown out of it?!), and it felt real. But what happened when the relationship ended was ridiculous, clumsy and completely transparent in its attempt at saying something profound about Islam, terrorism and the US. After this, the book went further downhill, spiralling into something that was almost unbearable. I didn’t care what happened anymore; I didn’t care about Tassie’s family; I didn’t care about Tassie herself.

The main plot about the adopted child Mary-Emma and her parents Sarah and Edward was intriguing and I think Moore should have kept the plot limited to this. There was a lot she could have done with this situation. Tacking on two other subplots (the romance and one other, which I can’t mention without spoiling it) was a mistake.

This book suffered not only from the messiness of its plot, but also from the lack of plausibility in its characters and its irritating, self-indulgent narration. If this is the kind of work that is shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, I don’t think I’ll be taking that prize very seriously anymore.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

My writer friend lent me this book saying ‘I can’t believe I haven’t lent you this one yet. It’s possibly one of my all-time favourite books’. Coming from her, this was a big claim, so I was intrigued and little bit excited. Another reason I looked forward to reading this book was that I had only just finished The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett about two weeks previously, and I had enjoyed it (I will write a review for it soon...promise).

Bel Canto story is set in a fictional country, somewhere in South America where there is a jungle, where Spanish is the common language and where the President is an ethnically Japanese man by the name of Masuda (I think it's a thinly veiled Peru). The setting is the residence of the Vice-President Ruben Inglesias, where a dinner is held for Mr Hosokawa, the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan. An American opera singer, Roxane Cross—the most renowned opera singer in the world—has been invited to sing at the dinner, specifically to lure Mr Hosokawa from Japan for he is a devoted fan of her work.

The lavish dinner is interrupted by terrorists who take the entire party hostage, mistakenly thinking that President Masuda would be there. When they realise their bad luck (he stayed at home to watch his favourite soap opera) they fail to come up with a counter plan. Lacking the violent aggression of other terrorist groups, this band inadvertently allows the situation to develop into a home away from home for both themselves and the hostages. The situation lasts for over four months, during which time relationships develop. After most of the staff members, women and children are released a couple of days into the siege, the only remaining women are two terrorists and Rozanne.

This is a love story, a story of love. The strange and beautiful situation that hostages and captors find themselves in enables them to forget that what they are experiencing can only ever end in disaster. In forgetting this, they open themselves up to life and love as they probably never would ‘outside’, in their ordinary lives. No one tries to escape. No one wants to. ‘Bel Canto’ means beautiful singing. It is Roxane’s beautiful singing, and eventually the young terrorist Cesar’s as well, that brings together the unlikely crowd of hostages, most of whom are wealthy, important political or public figures, and terrorists, mostly uneducated youths from the jungle, led by idealistic but thoughtless generals.

It is not only the music that brings this group of people together. Coming from different countries, they cannot communicate with each other. Gen, Mr Hosokawa’s interpreter becomes the most important person in the whole scenario. He is the consummate professional interpreter—like a machine he lets most conversations barely lick the surface of his mind, let alone touch his emotions. But he is now in a situation like no other interpreting job he had before, for his life is at stake, as is his employer’s for whom he has a deep respect. Gen’s sense of diplomacy, his calm thoughtfulness and his brilliant mind makes him an excellent conduit for everything from requests from the terrorists to the Red Cross, to love declarations for Roxane from long-winded Russians.

I was actually a little bit bored for the first part of the book. The pace was a touch too slow for my liking and I found myself only getting through about 10 pages before putting it down. I can’t be sure when in the story it was, but about halfway through, something pulled me in and I started to see what my friend was raving about. I finished this book last night and it has stayed in my mind. It is written in a most beautiful way. Each character is endearing and the unlikely bonds they forge are amusing and heartbreaking at the same time. The following paragraph captures this.

Mr Hosokawa and Roxane were standing at the sink. It was odd the way they never spoke and yet always seemed to be engaged in a conversation. Ignacio, Guadalupe, and Humberto were at the breakfast table cleaning guns, a puzzle of disconnected metal spreading out on newspapers before them as they rubbed oil into each part. Thibault sat at the table with them reading cookbooks.

Thibault is a French hostage who wears his wife’s scarf around his neck and misses her openly and unashamedly. He has taken responsibility for the cooking. Patchett manages to bring each character to life with warmth. Unlike The Patron Saint of Liars, whose initial narrator I ended up hating, I liked every character in this story. Even Beatriz, the sullen teenage terrorist who at first appeared as though she would, in a fit of temper, pull the trigger at the slightest provocation, had endeared herself to me by the end.

I was very surprised by the epilogue and a little confused about it. I tried to understand it in the big scheme of things, but had a bit of difficulty. Perhaps a different epilogue would have suited, or no epilogue at all.