‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash

flounderingA convincing, tough, unsentimental yet moving storyline more than smacks of truth as brothers Tom and Jordy come to terms with an unstable, broken mum who, having abandoned them on the doorstep of their gran twelve months earlier, has turned up again. Without a word, she whisks them off on a road trip the boys will never forget.

Loretta seemingly has no plan – and very little money – other than to head west. Days of sleeping in an old rust bucket of a car with the boys still in their school uniforms and surviving predominantly on chocolate and soda shoplifted along the way follow.

Eleven year-old Tom is our narrator, a boy who sees a lot but understands little. Loretta is slowly falling apart, fragments of a desperate woman experienced on the periphery of Tom’s vision. When the three find shelter in an old caravan park on the west coast, the sense of menace is just out of view as the slightly older, surly Jordy attempts to protect his brother.

Floundering is a grim, anxiety-ridden experience. Yet its vivid language and powerful sense of character, presented by the author without any judgement, drags us into the  squalor of the road trip and the inhospitable dereliction of the coastal campsite. As Tom says of his brother when they realise they have been abandoned once more, “there’s a little piece of string connecting us, and I got no choice but to go with the pull of it.” And that describes the effect Romy Ash’s debut novel has on its readers. And I, for one, am glad to have done so.

Shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, Romy Ash lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

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‘Back to Burgundy’

burgundyAn oenophile’s delight as Jean (Pio Marmai – Living on Love Alone, Alyah), 10 years roaming the globe, returns to the family vineyard. With his father seriously ill, Jean reunites with his sister and brother – and together they must decide on the future of the family business. Only he has another life on the other side of the globe.

The insights into the art of winemaking is the highlight of this enjoyable, if somewhat laboured and unconvincing drama. ‘Clean’ (not a compliment) is the accusation levelled on a neighbouring wine: more taut and acidic is the objective for the three siblings. Pity director Cedric Klapisch (Pot Luck, Chinese Puzzle) chose to play safe and produce a ‘clean’ film.

Rating: 52%

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

besidesReadable it may be, interspersed with the occasional provocative wit, but overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves left me cold and unengaged.

Rosemary Cooke (our narrator) has a sister. Or did. Fern disappeared from the family around Rosemary’s fifth birthday. And to add to the childhood trauma of loss, her older brother Lowell walked out of the family home in Indiana seven years later – and hasn’t been seen since (although news of his whereabouts occasionally filters through). Now a college student in Davis, California (the place of Lowell’s last reported sighting), a lonely Rosemary grieves for her lost siblings. Only it transpires that Fern was a chimpanzee (apologies for the spoiler).

Inspired by real-life experiments dating from the 1930s onwards, the family ‘twin‑sisterhood’ was part of an experiment conducted  by her psychologist father for five years before being abruptly terminated. Just why never becomes completely clear until towards the end of Fowler’s novel. It’s Rosemary’s culpability (or at least her belief of it) that forms the core – a motormouth child who now prefers silence as an adult and who remembers only snatches of her earlier formative years. But then a simian upbringing is likely to silence most discussions with peers!

Psychology theories abound in Fowler’s book (transpires her father was a professor of psychology in Indiana) as Rosemary looks to justifications and answers. And she is constantly looking for answers. But those answers are in her past.

What starts out as a traditional family narrative soon becomes anything but. And whilst the dysfunctional family is well written, it soon becomes overanalysed – as does the message regarding animal lab testing. Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a labouredrepetitive story as Rosemary looks to understand just what happened when she was five years old.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize (the first year where American authors qualified for consideration), Karen Joy Fowler lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘Our Fathers’ by Andrew O’Hagan

ourfathersA controlled, assured first novel, Our Fathers is an elegiac yet dark stroll down a Scottish memory lane. It’s 1960s Glasgow and the time of social reform and urban renewal. Out with the slums and in with the new – clean, modern, light-filled high rise tower blocks.

But 30 years later, the legendary Hugh Bawn is dying from cancer on the 18th floor of one of those same tower blocks he helped create. His grandson Jamie returns from England to watch over him  – and it is he who is Our Fathers narrator.

It’s a story of nationalism, socialism, alcoholism, pride and hopes – of three lives dictated and determined by the values and drive of one: Hugh ‘Mr Housing’ Bawn. He may be frail and dying in a flat where the lifts are constantly vandalised, but Hugh Bawn’s history is one of municipal principles and righteous politics. But it came at a cost – an alcoholic son who could never live up to expectations and who, in return, deeply traumatised and rejected his own son, Jamie. Even those same tower blocks, standing ‘proud as a Soviet gymnast’ are now being demolished, built as they were with substandard materials. And with them go the idealism and aspirations of the old working class socialist values.

Andrew O’Hagan is in the territory of writers such as Jack London and Robert Tressell,  with its overt celebration of social (socialist) working class realism. In writing almost a century later, however, Hagan records the loss of much of its associated idealism (it’s no coincidence that Jamie has moved to England and is a demolitions expert – both anathema to his grandfather).

But in looking to that recording of social realism, O’Hagan misses a crucial element to his narrative – emotional empathy. Consequently, whilst Our Fathers is an informative construction with rich prose and savvy dialogue, the heart yearned for a little more emotion and less emotional detachment.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, Our Fathers lost out to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

 

‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

jurassicA fun if overlong templated blockbuster, the latest in the the Jurassic world of dinosaurs sees an imminent volcanic eruption on the island threatening, once again, extinction.

Back come Owen (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy, Passengers) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help, Gold) to save the day and thwart Eli Mills (Rafe Spall – One Day, The Big Short) and his money-making plans.

It’s Indiana Jones and derring-do revisited: hardly new, entertaining enough and more than (obviously) topical (private, unethical military sales to the highest bidder; privatisation; genetic engineering etc). Director J. A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, The Impossible) handles the material well enough, but this ain’t gonna change the world.

Rating: 53%

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’

sicario_day_of_the_soldadoThat sense of menace sublimely achieved in the first instalment, Sicario, is retained by director, Stefano Sollima (TV’s Gomorrah), in this thrilling sequel. That mood is more than helped by the mesmerising soundtrack from Hildur Gudnadottir (A Hijacking, Mary Magdalene).

It’s more of the same as the US look to control illegal immigration across the border from Mexico – and the answer this time round is to start a war between the drug cartels.

Benicio Del Toro (Traffic, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men, Deadpool 2) return – but sadly no Emily Blunt. And it’s that lack of toughness and vulnerability that is sadly missing. The original was masterful: Sicario: Day of the Soldado is gritty and intense but too violently one-dimensional.

Rating: 66%

‘Foxtrot’

Layout 1A sublime mix of intense drama interspersed with flashes of surreal brilliance, the latest from writer/director Samuel Maoz (Lebanon) is bold, sombre and shot through with occasional wit.

A split narrative spread over a few days where a grieving Tel Aviv couple (Lior Ashkenazi – Footnote, Late Marriage – and Sarah Adler, The Cakemaker, Jelly Fish) come to terms with the death of their son in the line of duty as the drama at the isolated military outpost where he was stationed unfolds.

Superb performances along with poignant, claustrophobic close-ups, sparse dialogue and poetic imagery all combine to create an emotionally gripping film of devastating subtlety.

Rating: 90%

‘Brothers’ Nest’

brothersnestposterReal life brothers Shane and Clayton Jacobson team up to present an enormously entertaining family murder dramedy.

Things are just not going right for the brothers. The wife has left the not-so-bright Terry (Shane Jacobson – Kenny, The Bourne Affair), taking the kids with her whilst the older, more controlling Jeff (Clayton Jacobson – Animal Kingdom, Just Between Us) has lost his job – again. Now mum has months to live and their stepfather is threatening to sell the family home and move back to Queensland. But Jeff has a plan.

A slow beginning (just the two bickering brothers) evolves into a gloriously dark, mordant comedy, beautifully contained within the confines of an isolated weatherboard farmhouse.

Rating: 62%

‘Disgrace’ by J. M. Coetzee

JMCoetzee_DisgraceA compelling, multilayered exploration of the dilemma of South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid years, Disgrace is a beautifully written story of power, sexuality and redemption.

Twice-divorced David Lurie, a middle-aged lecturer of Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, has an ill-advised short-lived affair with one of his students. When a complaint is filed against him, an arrogant and dismissive Lurie refuses to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his behaviour and, as a result, is forced to resign. Retreating to his daughter’s isolated smallholding in the Eastern Cape, Lurie is forced to confront his values, opinions and position as a privileged white male in the new South Africa.

More anti-hero than Byronic, Lurie’s complex emotions to his situation – a man seeming without purpose – is heightened by the attack on his daughter Lucie and himself by three young black men in their own home. Lucie refuses to file a complaint, much to the distress of her father.

Roles and position have changed, inevitable but, in some instances, sudden. Lurie is no longer the man he once was – no job, little influence on his daughter, ageing. But there is hope for him – the sexual relationship with Bev, a woman he finds physically unattractive, is an act that is a step towards “annihilating his sexual vanity and his sense of superiority.”

A lyrical, riveting metaphor, Disgrace was the winner of the 1999 Booker Prize – and possibly one of the best books I have ever read.

 

‘Hereditary’

hereditaryWhat a disappointment! Hyper-lauded by critics (87 on metacritic) as a true classic horror, director Ari Aster’s directorial debut is a derivative mishmash of much of what has come before it. Ghostly apparitions, (dead) granny on the ceiling, bumps in the night, devil-worship and ancient mythologies…

As a psychological family drama, Hereditary starts off well enough with Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine, Muriel’s Wedding) and family barely grieving for her recently deceased, belligerent mother. But then her 13 year-old daughter dies in a freak accident and everything goes down hill from there – including the film.

For a horror film, there are few scary bits – and even those are a very long time coming.

Rating: 36%