‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut

in-a-strange-roomSince starting on my personal determination to read all winning and shortlisted books of both the Man Booker and Miles Franklin awards, new names (to me) are constantly popping up. South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut is just such a writer.

In a Strange Room is Galgut’s seventh book and was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize – yet he is no stranger to awards. His earlier The Good Doctor (2003) also found itself on the Booker shortlist and picked up the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa).

A relatively short novel (around 180 pages), In a Strange Room is a startlingly beautiful yet melancholic book, a haunting evocation of place and time. Divided into three journeys, there is a restlessness and sense of placelessness that pervades as the protagonist, Damon, leaves South Africa to journey through Greece, Lesotho, India. He seemingly belongs nowhere, living temporarily in Cape Town or Pretoria when ‘home’ yet constantly on the move when away from his country of birth – “never going towards something, but always away, away.”

Homoerotic undertones underscore the first two of Damon’s journeys – firstly with the beautiful German, Rainer, and later with the Swiss youth, Jerome. But the relationships are never consummated in spite of reciprocal intimations, as “one is too scared and the other too proud.” Yet the attraction remains, driving Damon, in the case of Jerome, to join him and his travelling companions across Africa (Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya) and, later, to travel to Switzerland itself.

All three journeys end, in their own way, in tragedy, with the third and final story, The Guardian, harrowing for Damon as he cares for the psychotic Anna whilst dealing with life-sapping Indian bureaucracy. It’s claustrophobic and insular (unlike the previous journeys and their distant horizons) with the internal landscapes of doubt, failure and self-worth explored in elegant, minimalist language.

Part travelogue, part memoire (based, apparently, on true events), part novel, In a Strange Room is something of a hybrid. Written mainly in the third person but occasionally switching to first person singular adds to the unsettling otherness and ambiguity of the book. Such a technique also enhances the validity of observation, providing an objective perspective on events as well as opinions.

Only at the end do we get a sense of any permanence for Damon, although experience has shown that this may be temporary.

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there … In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return.

‘Jupiter Ascending’

Jupiter-Ascending-Movie-PosterAbysmal. A cacophony of confusing visuals and boring (laser) fight scenes that completely overshadow what was, potentially, a visually sumptuous epic. A five hour film spliced into nothingness? Result is a terrible waste of a decent cast, including recent Oscar best actor, Eddie Redmayne, and Mila Kunis.

What’s happened to The Wachowskis? After the seminal The Matrix trilogy, everything seems to have gone downhill. Their last film, Cloud Atlas, was something of a mess. But unlike Jupiter Ascending, at least that film had some redeeming features.

Rating: 29%

‘A Girl Walks Home at Night’

A-girl-walks-home-posterSo few surprises at the Oscars that hardly worth pausing to mention (although delighted for Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne and J.K.Simmons).

So on with the everyday – not that A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is what I would describe as an everyday feature. It’s probably (almost certainly) the first b/w Iranian vampire feature directed by a woman: throw into the mix the fact that whilst filmed in Farsi, locations were California…. That alone would make it seeing.

And it’s certainly interesting. Not sure I would go as overboard as some critics have (“a new vampire classic” – The Playlist) – beguiling is more appropriate. The feature-length debut by award-winning director Ana Lily Amirpour (shorts True Love, A Little Suicide) of taking itself a little too artily seriously at times – longeurs of nothingness in semi-lit streets. But you certainly get drawn in.

Rating: 58%

‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville

The_Book_of_EvidenceUnreliable narrator Freddie Montgomery, sitting in prison awaiting trial for murder, recounts his story of just how he finds himself liable to face life imprisonment in an Irish jail.

From a life of privileged dysfunction to a man in public hiding via many years living abroad, Montgomery, desperate to find the money he so flippantly borrowed, kills not for financial gain but simply because he can. Redolent of Patricia Highsmith’s amoral Tom Ripley, Freddie’s relatively carefree life is about to end for the murder of a young maid. In the wrong place at the wrong time, the young woman walked into the room as the louche narrator is stealing a (not particularly valuable) portrait.

On the run, he hides out in the large but rundown home of Charlie, an old family friend. But with few leads, the police are initially clueless and Freddie’s sojourn is hardly the furtive existence normally associated with being in hiding. It is his self-justification and arrogance that eventually lead to his downfall and the narration he writes to the judge and jury of his future trial.

That that narration maybe unreliable – Montgomery’s own ‘book of evidence’ to the events ­– is moot but irrelevant. What The Book of Evidence is is a wry, intelligent and restrained account of his crime and events leading up to it.

A consummate yet pellucid wordsmith, Banville’s intriguing novel is simultaneously thought-provoking, challenging (the words echolalia, balanic, ataraxic, meniscus and ichor appearing in two short paragraphs as early as page 19), sardonic (Banville references the use of those same words in the next paragraph) and witty.

It does take a little while to get into it, but once past page 19, The Book of Evidence completely draws you in. Shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize, it lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

‘What We Did On Our Holiday’

movies-what-we-did-on-our-holiday-posterOh dear… More misfires than a clapped-out Austin Allegro. What happened to this dire mess of a comedy?

The kids are great and have the best lines; their scenes with their grandfather, the iconic Billy Connolly, charming. But as the adults (including Oscar-nominee Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl) bicker and argue through the arrangements for Connolly’s 75th birthday, so the three youngsters take on responsibilities far beyond their reach. But, in spite of the media storm caused, the narrative follows the predictability apparent from the first few minutes.

Rating: 36%

‘Paddy Ha Ha Ha’ by Roddy Doyle

screen-shot-2013-05-31-at-09-28-28The first reaction to knowing Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was the recipient of the Booker Prize is that 1993 must have been a minor year in the literary world. But closer observation reveals that not only were David Malouf (Remembering Babylon) and Carol Shields (The Stone Diaries) shortlisted, but it was also the year of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door (to name but a few).

So just how did this occasionally engaging but somewhat dreary, slow and painful lament for the death of childhood walk away with one of the most prestigious of all literary prizes?

Roddy Doyle certainly has his plaudits – his first three novels, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van (all set in working class northern Dublin and known as the Barrytown Trilogy) were hugely popular and adapted for screen (large and small). But sadly, his fourth, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha missed the ribald humour of Doyle’s earlier works.

Seen through the eyes and ears of 10 year-old Paddy Clarke, the eldest of four, the novel explores approximately one year of growing up in the changing world of the late 1960s. It is the story of family, school and friends, with the local lads running amok but firmly kept in check by parents and schoolteachers.

Spritely at first, a sense of inevitable doom pervades Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha as we slip from Paddy and his mates strutting the streets to a more poignant awareness of the disintegrating relationship of his parents. But there’s little sense of change in pace or prose and it is this repetition of unemotional observation by Doyle that leaves Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha somewhat flat and disappointing.

‘Still Alice’

magazine photo 2Totally devastating – and Julianne Moore, in a superbly understated performance which will hopefully  finally bring her the Oscar she so deserves (Far From Heaven, A Single Man), is extraordinary. She is also well supported by Twilight’s own Kristen Stewart, equipping herself as an actress to watch as she moves further and further away from the teen vampire movies.

Still Alice is not an easy film to watch as Alzheimer’s erodes away at Alice but it is nevertheless  incredibly respectful and deeply moving.

Rating: 79%

‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt

sisters-brothersDarkly comic, set in the Californian Gold Rush-era, The Sisters Brothers is a grippingly original tale of death, mayhem and redemption.

Yet, with the announcement of the inclusion of Patrick deWitt’s sophomore novel in the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, many a critic’s eyebrow was raised. The first western in the long history of the Prize to reach the shortlist, the novel was one of several the critics felt had edged out their particular favourites – namely Sebastian Barry (On Canaan’s Side), Alan Hollinghurst (The Stranger’s Child) and D J Taylor (Derby Day). It lead to these same critics accusing the judges of dumbing down the prestigious award to include popular rather than literary works.

The Canadian author did not win – that honour went, for the first time, to Julian Barnes and his literary The Sense of an Ending. But it mattered little – deWitt went on to collect the four major Canadian literary prizes and this bizarre, hugely enjoyable, darkly comic novel became a global best seller.

The story

Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious guns-for-hire in the Californian Gold Rush-era. The Commodore has sent them a thousand miles across the Oregon desert to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a man who has done him wrong.

Fighting, shooting, drinking, occasionally whoring their way west, Eli begins to question this way of life. Unlike his brother, Eli has a moral complexity – not particularly useful in the brothers’ line of work. Eli has become an assassin only as a result of his determination to be by his brother’s side, come what may. He had no calling. Thus, as the two slowly and methodically head towards their prey, he philosophises and daydreams of an alternative lifestyle, a General Store back home in Oregon with Charlie.

Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western as the two horsemen bicker their way across a land and environment where its kill or be killed. But the author counterbalances the harsh lifestyle with quirky, off-kilter humour where the overweight Eli has a compulsive desire to get rid of his money, find love and becomes an advocate of tooth powder and toothbrushes.

But whilst there are many laugh-out-loud moments, The Sisters Brothers is not a comedy. It’s a gritty story with many a shocking scene of death and mutilation as the two discover Hermann Warm is not the man the Commodore has painted him to be.

Eli may want this to be the last kill, but Charlie has no intention of giving it all up. He is ambitious and has an eye for giving orders, not taking them. And Warm, with his invention the Commodore quite simply wants, certainly seems to be offering the opportunity.

The Sisters Brothers epitomises picaresque with its extremely likeable anti-heroes and quirky Coen Brothers banter. A road story with a difference, it is gripping, darkly funny and wholly compelling.

‘Citizenfour’

citizenfour_xlgBig Brother is watching you – or at least listening.

A coruscating documentary about Whistleblower Ed Snowden and the metadata collection by the US government on not only US citizens but also non-Americans living outside the USA – all under the guise of ‘terrorism’ (even if you are the German Chancellor or a Brazilian company competing against American interests in Brazil….).

Only one democratic country is worse for spying on its own citizens – the UK…

Filmed as a thriller with Ed holed up in a Hong Kong hotel as he reveals the information to filmmaker Laura Poitras (The Oath, Flag Wars) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (US) and Ewen MacAskill (UK), who in turn drip feed the information to the news network.

Rating: 68%

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan

narrowroadIt’s interesting that many cite Richard Flanagan (born 1961) as one of the (if not the) most important Australian writers of his generation. That’s quite a claim from a list that includes Tim Winton (1960), Christos Tsiolkas (1965), Geraldine Brooks (1955), Michelle de Kretser (1957), Gail Jones (1955), Elliot Perlman (1964) and Kim Scott (1957).

But a quick scan of his literary output certainly points to him being deservedly placed among this hallowed company. His second novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998), collected the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize and the Bookseller’s Choice Award (as well as reaching the Miles Franklin shortlist). This was followed in 2001 with Gould’s Book of Fish: Flanagan once more picked up the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin – but he also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal for his third novel. His next, The Unwanted Terrorist, was well-received in 2006 but bypassed when it came to awards: Wanting (2008) collected both the Queensland and Western Australia Premier’s Prize.

His latest, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and more than twelve years in the writing, is proving to be Richard Flanagan’s most successful book, winning the 2014 Man Booker Prize (although it surprisingly failed to win the Miles Franklin Award).

The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle’s young wife. Post war, having survived the horrors of the Japanese POW camps on the Burma Railway, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt. Full of doubts and loathing, he is self-deprecating of his leadership in the camps and confused by his perpetual need for affairs outside of marriage to the ever-suffering Ella, his society wife of more than 40 years.

Structurally, the book is essentially divided into three parts – pre-war, war and post-war. But at its very centre are the events that unfold in the POW death camps attached to the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway. More than 300,000 ‘slaves’ were used and disposed of by the Japanese in the construction of a railway through jungle that had been believed to be impassable. More than 12,000 Allied prisoners died in its construction.

As senior captured officers succumb to disease, Dorrigo finds himself placed in command of 700 prisoners who he “held, nursed, cajoled, begged, hoodwinked and organised into surviving, whose needs he always put before his own” living, as they were, in appalling conditions and suffering from starvation, cholera, tropical ulcers, constant, violent and, usually, senseless beatings. Near naked prisoners, wracked with fevers, sleep and food deprivation are forced to manually break through thick jungles and rocky gorges, surviving on two small balls of sour rice per day.

Based on Flanagan’s own father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, the accounts of life in the camps are desperately sad, deeply harrowing and, at times, simply beyond rational belief. It is here that Flanagan and his non-sensationalist, descriptive prose is at its very best. The Narrow Road to the Deep North at this point flows, homage that it is to Flanagan’s father and the Australian and Allied Forces who died and survived the terrible “will of the Emperor” and associated fundamentalism of the Japanese forces.

Following the end of the war, we unexpectedly follow several of the characters from the camps. In chronicling the later lives of and deaths of Japanese commanders and Korean guards, Flanagan is seeking to understand motives, responsibility and guilt from different points of view.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an elegantly written novel and, in the third ‘section’, as it brings the story to the present day, Flanagan is looking more closely at the question of what, and who, are good and evil along with that ever-present theme – what is the nature of love. Dorrigo survived the camps thinking not of Ella, but of Amy, his uncle’s wife. Dorrigo’s reference for his behaviour 40 years later remains, he argues, his search for the love and desire he felt for Amy.

But what prevents The Narrow Road to the Deep North from being a true classic is the first ‘section’ of the book – a poor, somewhat cheesy scene-setter and romance between Dorrigo and Amy. It fails to ring true as the new military medic, based away from Ella and Melbourne society, meets a young woman in an Adelaide bookshop where he quotes poetry to her. Unable to forget this beguiling blonde, he is shocked to discover on travelling to his uncle’s hotel down the coast a few weeks later, Amy serving behind the bar and married to his uncle Keith.

A torrid but short-lived relationship develops – but he is never to forget her: and she him.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a rich meditation on life and death, love and humanity, ambitious and, as he says himself, a novel he was born to write. But what lets it down is that introductory first 100 pages.