‘The Time We Have Taken’ by Steven Carroll

The third and final instalment of the Glenroy novels by Steven Carroll, The Time We Have Taken is the strongest of the trilogy. But it remains an essentially suburban story, an evocation of a time long past (the trilogy covers the 1950s through to 1970) where Carroll looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

There are no major surprises in The Time We Have Taken. Much of the development of events has been scaffolded in the earlier novels. Thus, Vic has upped and left Rita and the suburb, settling into a town a thousand miles to the north. Their son, Michael, has completed his university studies and is in his first year as a trainee teacher – at his old school. It’s only with Rita there is a significant (and unexpected) change. She has given up her travelling sales job and has become the cleaner to Mrs Webster at the large house. It’s 1970 and progress marches on. The suburb celebrates its centenary and a committee is formed. Michael discovers the awkwardness of first love; Mrs Webster, having taken on the business, confronts the mystery of her husband’s death and Vic takes his regular beer, knowing that his time is limited. 

The first book in the trilogy – The Art of the Engine Driver– is a semi-autobiographical narrative (Carroll’s father was a steam engine driver and he grew up in 1950s Melbourne suburbia) but, as the storylines develop with The Gift of Speed and The Time We Have Taken, so the nature of the characters become more and more fictionalised within a generic time and place. 

It’s a time of change yet many of his characters remain anchored to the past. Rita maintains the family home as a monument to something that never was, Vic awaits the occasional letter from her. Michael is scarred by family life that never communicated; Mrs Webster comes to terms with never really knowing her husband. It is through such characters that Carroll has created the minutiae of suburban life in Australia in the 1960s/70s – a lack of worldliness, a lack of ambition, a lack of anything much. Change is a threat – as represented by future Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a figure who looms large in the centenary celebrations.

Carroll assuredly captures the rhythm of suburbia. The Time We Have Taken unfolds with more than a hint of nostalgia, the characters finely drawn, the narrative (purposefully) slow: a meditation. Carroll writes beautifully but the inertia of suburban life subsumes – even the revelation of Mulligan’s town hall mural depicting a very different history to the one expected causes only ripples of consternation.

As the final book in a trilogy of novels each shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, it was no surprise that The Time We Have Taken collected the 2008 Award.

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‘Us’

Unlike Jordan Peele’s first feature, the immensely enjoyable Get Out, Us is an overthought, overwrought home invasion horror thriller.

The Wilson family’s beach vacation turns into a nightmare as doppelgängers appear with vacant stares, guttural grunts and wielding sharpened golden scissors. But this home invasion is not restricted to the Wilsons’ holiday home – and it’s soon apparent Santa Cruz and beyond are impacted by these murderous zombie-like creatures.

Lupita Nyong’o (Twelve Years a Slave, Black Panther) takes control to protect her family (the man of the family, Winston Duke – Avengers Infinity War, Black Panther – is something of a fool) as it appears her doppelgänger is the one in charge. Lots of frantic night-time activity, blood and gore (and occasional foray into humour) fail to hide the film’s shortcomings and predictability.

Rating: 42%

‘Destroyer’

A stellar performance by an almost unrecognisable Nicole Kidman (Lion, The Hours) takes director Karyn Kusama’s (Aeon Flux, Girlfight) crime thriller of redemption and justice to a different level.

As a police detective emotionally traumatised by a series of wrong decisions made 17 years earlier as an undercover rookie, Kidman is a train-wreck. An alcoholic, prone to violence and off-the-rails behaviour, she struggles with colleagues and her estranged daughter. But a chance of redemption rears its head as gang leader Silas (Toby Kebbell – RocknRolla, Kong: Skull Island) reappears on the LA crime scene.

Pensive and cerebral, Destroyer is something of a slow build as the narrative of the present unfurls through the unfolding of the past. It’s not an easy ride, with little instant gratification. But Kidman’s intractability and so out-of-character unpleasantness makes for a mesmerising two hours.

Rating: 69%

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan’s latest novel is a thought provoking and intriguing narrative, but not one that I found particularly engaging. The Canadian author’s distant, almost objective matter-of-fact approach created a distance, a cold veneer to the story that left this particular reader strangely unmoved by much of what unfolded over its 400 plus pages.

Barbados, 1830 – and Washington Black is a 10, or possibly 11, year-old slave boy, working the fields of the Faith Plantation. Eighteen weeks after the death of his first master, the cruel Erasmus Wilde, a man ‘…[who] owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much’ arrives from England. What follows is a period of terrible cruelty, chilling and unsparing in its randomness and seen from a child’s-eye view. But Washington Black does not dwell on the horrors of colonial slavery: its scope is broader, its ambition wider.

Instead, Erasmus Wilde’s brother, the eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, chooses the young Black to be his personal assistant. Naturalist, scientist, inventor, explorer and abolitionist, Titch wants the boy to help him perfect the perfect aerial machine. But a terrible accident leaves Wash permanently scarred – and as witness to another event, he and Titch flee the island. The two are plunged into adventures on the high seas, the southern American states and the icy wastes of the Arctic and which take in London, Amsterdam and Morocco along the way. And it is Washington Black who rises to the challenge with his imagination and intelligence, even when he is at his lowest ebb. His talent with paper and pencil and the 19thcentury demand for science, illustration and drawn studies attract others to him.

Scientific discoveries, engineering feats, bounty hunters, freezing temperatures, love, destitution, joy, disappointment all follow – elements of a 19thcentury swashbuckling adventure story. But Black is also invested in knowledge, thoughts and interests beyond his background and education – a precociousness that jars but allows the narrative to develop, stylistically enabling Edugyan to increase that searched-for scope of the novel. But it is also this mechanical approach that, for me, placed Washington Black as interesting rather than engaging. It jarred a little too much, putting it beyond the believable and more into a fervid ‘message’. Storyline after storyline is introduced. And whilst Wash is a unique character, restless, bought alive by his connections to people – from Big Kit, his powerful protector at the plantation, Titch himself and, later, Tanna – and the opportunities they provide, there’s something that does not quite gel. And that, sadly, undermined Edugyan’s third novel for me.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize but lost out to Anna Burns and Milkman.


‘Poor Cow’ by Nell Dunn

Set in the south London working class suburb of Fulham in the 1960s, Poor Cowis the story of Joy, a young woman with plenty of dreams but few opportunities (Whole lot of longing what never comes true.). A reluctant mother at 21, a husband in prison and, following a short period of luxury on the proceeds of one of Tom’s jobs, is now back living with her Aunt Em in a one-bedroomed flat in Fulham.

It’s a poignant story of a train-wreck of a life, a life determined predominantly by the choices of others (Tom; his mate, Dave, with whom Joy finds some happiness until he too is put away in the nick) and the system. But Joy herself also makes some pretty ripe choices.

Yet, somehow, Joy seems to muddle through it all – modelling (nude), as a barmaid or taking money for sexual favours (but never on the game). Her ambitions are limited – she hated the life of luxury with Tom in the soulless suburb of Ruislip –and she’s determined to wait for the release of Dave (12 years). Only trouble is that Dave introduced Joy to the joys of sex… 

But her biggest (unexpected) love is her son, Jonny. No matter what, Joy tries to be there for him (by today’s standards, her efforts would be far from enough) and many of her decisions are made with Jonny in mind. Even agreeing to live with Tom on his release is based to some extent on a level of security for both her and her son.

Semi-autobiographical (author Nell Dunn lived in Battersea – the next suburb along from Fulham – throughout the 60s), Poor Cow is a knee-length boots and mini-skirted tale of life, love, survival and young motherhood in the 1960s. Dunn captures the sense of place and time through the use of language and a real sense of Joy’s personality is achieved through her letters to Dave (a naïve innocence mixed with a steely resolve written in a terribly spelt south London vernacular). It’s a fascinating slice of life from a very different perspective to that of Swingin’ London and its youth-driven cultural revolution. And at 141 pages, it’s short!

‘Everybody Knows’

Beautifully shot, perfectly capturing the Spanish countryside and village life, auteur Asghar Fahardi’s (The Salesman, A Separation) latest is ultimately a deeply unpleasant narrative of revenge.

Laura (Penelope Cruz – Volver, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) travels from Buenos Aires with her two children to attend her sister’s wedding. But the kidnapping of teenage daughter Irene results in long-buried secrets, family feuds and village animosities rising to the surface with devastating results.

Former lover Paco (a solid and likeable Javier Bardem – No Country For Old Men, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is there for a distraught Laura. But, over the course of 150 minutes, Everybody Knows, whilst eminently watchable, gradually slips into melodrama and (for Fahardi) unsubtle angst.

Rating: 54%

‘Captain Marvel’

Generic and somewhat flat, the latest in the Marvel universe is an uninspiring genesis film.

A generally unconvincing Oscar-winning Brie Larson (Room, Kong: Skull Island) finds herself on the wrong side of good in a galactic war that, slowly, reveals her human roots. Mentor Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes, Cold Mountain) encourages the latest superhero to overcome her emotions in the fight against the Skrulls – but contact with former (human) friends and SHIELD agents, including (a digitally enhanced) Samuel L Jackson, undermine her training.

The underlying humour (Jackson and the cat in particular) make Captain Marvel passable, but directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Billions, Half Nelson) are sadly out of their indie film/TV comfort zone.

Rating: 38%

‘Triple Frontier’

A superior genre film from Netflix as five former special forces operatives reunite to steal a drug lord’s fortune in the jungles of deepest South America.

Putting their lives at risk for country is placed on the back burner as millions of dollars are at stake: Oscar Isaacs (Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year) is on a personal mission and pulls together a team that includes Ben Affleck (Argo, Gone Girl) and Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur, The Lost City of Z).

Character and plot development are dealt with on a fairly equal basis until we hit action stations, and whilst there are some howlers in plot line, it’s all entertaining enough until the guys make their planned escape. It then hits the ‘pretty dumb’ button hard. With J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year) at the helm and written by Chandor and Mark Boal (Detroit, The Hurt Locker), Triple Frontier could, and should, have been a lot better. But it’s still entertaining for what it is.

A Netflix original.

Rating: 59%

‘Hotel Mumbai’

The harrowing events of the coordinated terrorist attack on multiple targets across Mumbai in 2008 form the basis of Anthony Maras’ feature film debut.

The luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, where terrorists controlled the corridors for four days killing more than 30 people, was the highest profile target. And it is here that Maras focuses his occasionally gripping, predominantly bland, factional telling. Like many disaster films of old with large casts, it’s the lack of characterisation that’s the problem. Dev Patel (Lion, Slumdog Millionaire) as staff member Arjun is the film’s mainstay but with Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Nazanin Boniadi and Carmen Duncan as guests, their stories need to be told – along with time spent with the (admittedly gripping) rampaging terrorists stalking the hotel.

Hotel Mumbai certainly has its moments, but in terms of a tribute to victims and survivors, it falls somewhat short as excess of killings and violence outweigh any attempt at a message.

Rating: 53%

‘On the Basis of Sex’

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is trending, an icon of our time. Last year came the acclaimed documentary, RBG, which introduced the fiery advocate for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights to a wider audience.

Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward, Deep Impact) and her film introduces her to far more – although, inevitably, the biopic of only the second woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, is sadly diluted for mass consumption. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Inferno) plays Ginsburg with steely aplomb, but in covering 30 years, the narrative skims across too much detail.

Rating: 56%