‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar

9780241957073Not surprisingly, nine year-old Suleiman (Slooma) does not fully grasp events going on around him – not helped by the fact his wealthy parents, in order to protect him, are choosing not to tell him very much.

It’s 1979 Tripoli and ten years after the Gaddafi people’s revolution. But Libya is now closely monitored, awash with surveillance, secret police and a culture of reporting anti-revolutionary activity. Yet Suleiman’s father, Faraj, a successful businessman, is involved in clandestine activities against ‘The Guide’.

In the Country of Men is not a novel focusing on specific historical content or events – it is more an emotional journey as seen through the eyes of a nine year-old, resulting in events being frequently misunderstood or distorted. Thus, the narrow rituals of childhood are elevated in importance – games in the street with friends, the mood swings of his young alcoholic mother, gifts from his father’s overseas trips. Away from dusty Mulberry Street and home, events play themselves out without a great deal of impact. Until, that is, Ustath Rashid is arrested for anti-revolutionary sentiments. Next-door neighbours and the father of Slooma’s best friend, Kereem, his arrest sends events into a tailspin.

A narrative of love and betrayal, In the Country of Men is a lyrical yet unsentimental portrait of both a family and a country. Betrayal runs rampant throughout – Gaddafi’s to Libya, Faraj to his son, Slooma himself to both his parents as well as Kereem. But below the surface is the tenderness and confusion of love.

Suleiman makes mistakes in his desperate need for the love of his father. Forced into a marriage at 14, Slooma’s mother finds solace in illegal schnapps: like Scheherazade, she tells stories of her life and betrayal by her family to her son long into the night. But, with Faraj’s arrest, so a deep love for her husband comes to the fore. It is only years later, with Suleiman a 24 year-old living in Egypt, that the tragic sadness of events begin to fall into place. And by then it is mostly too late.

Born in New York in 1970 of Libyan parents, Hisham Matar returned to live in Tripoli with his parents when he was three years old. His family was forced to flee to Egypt just six years later due to political persecution. Matar’s father disappeared in 1990 and has been missing ever since. In the Country of Men, his debut novel, may be a fiction, but it is very much a story of the heart.

Shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize, London-based Hisham Matar, with his debut novel, lost out to Kiran Desai and The Inheritance of Loss.

 

‘The Mountain’ by Drusilla Modjeska

image24-1There’s a great deal to admire in Drusilla Modjeska’s ambitious, sweeping, multilayered novel that takes us into the heart of colonial change as the fractured island of Papua New Guinea moves towards independence from Australia in the 1970s.

Centred round academia and the new university in Port Moresby, the island’s capital, The Mountain introduces an Australian ex-pat community along with their Papuan contemporaries. It’s a country on the cusp of change but still dictated to by tradition, both colonial and tribal. Into this world arrive Rika and her anthropology documentary film-maker husband, Lawrence.

Several years his wife’s senior, Lawrence resists the idea that anthropology is about simply observing as if under a microscope: change and external influence has validity. He travels to the (fictional) remote mountain and local villages to film, leaving Rika in town to acclimatise to a world very different to her Dutch background.

While Lawrence records and experiences clan relations and rituals, art and ancestor stories and the influences of western teachings and medicines, so Rika herself confronts her own changes and conflicts, falling for Aaron, the young and charismatic local academic and future leader. Friends and colleagues are not overly fazed by this development, but the rarefied air of academia is not representative of colonial society. Some Papuans are disapproving: members of the white community turn to violence.

With one foot in Moresby and one on the mountain, Modjeska’s novel is very much about place and time. Rika’s coming-of-age runs simultaneously with PNG’s introduction to democracy and the position of tribal practices of tradition and superstition in this new world: her exposure to life on the mountain when she eventually joins Lawrence further changes Rika.

The second (and considerably shorter) part of The Mountain is set 30 years later: Rika is a successful artist living in New York while Aaron is long dead. It is Jericho, Rika and Aaron’s adopted son, who returns. A successful art dealer in London, Jericho is mixed race and feels he belongs nowhere. He needs to understand his sense of place – but also needs closure with details about Aaron’s death so soon after Independence.

It’s a dense, luminous work of fiction. Modjeska is a celebrated non-fiction writer and The Mountain is at its brilliant best when it navigates that sense of place and the realities of that world – the politics, its history, its traditions. The complexities of PNG are palpable, particularly in the first half of the book as we journey with Rika and, to her, the newness of the island and its culture.

Less successful, less engaging, are the individual stories and narratives. Jericho arrives too late to hold the sympathies and empathies: his personal journey of identity in part mirrors Riva’s arrival in PNG. But it is too obvious where his questions will be answered – he is, at the end of the day, a mountain man. And his long-held love for Bili, daughter of Riva’s close friend Laedi, is all too neatly wrapped in her activism for PNG’s right to self-determine.

The Mountain is, throughout, full of convenient love affairs, analogies for events – the disintegrating marriage between Laedi and Don; the rocky marriage of Pete and Martha (that at least survives until his death in Sydney many years later); Wana and Sam; the unexpected Lawrence and Janape. And, central, Rika and Aaron.

Through them and their friendships, we gain an insight into the local cultural mix: through them and their children, we experience, when Jericho returns to the island, how independence has impacted and how tradition has withstood the test of time.

It’s a long journey for all concerned – Lawrence and Jericho return from the UK, Martha from Sydney. A bitter Riva will never travel from New York to the island. It’s 30 years since Papua New Guinea gained independence: it’s 30 years since Aaron died. It’s also a long, overly detailed journey for the reader – particularly in the middle where the newness of discovery has worn off.

Drusilla Modjeska’s first book of fiction was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin award but lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

 

 

 

‘The Van’ by Roddy Doyle

13452626Thirty or so years ago, in modern parlance, Roddy Doyle was trending. His first two novels, The Commitments and The Snapper, had successfully transferred to the big screen. And the third in the Barrytown Trilogy, The Van, was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize. (Doyle went on to win the Booker two years later with Paddy Ha Ha Ha).

But today, the working-class Barrytown vernacular of the Rabbitte family wears thin. The ups and downs of these Dublin residents and friends have been charted throughout the trilogy – with the expectation that with such low personal and communal esteem, everything is doomed to failure. And whereas previous Barrytown narratives have focussed on the younger members, The Van looks to the older generation of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr and mate Bimbo.

They’ve both been laid off from work – Jimmy Sr from the off, Bimbo about a quarter into the book.

Hearing and seeing the previous family breadwinner cope with his diminished responsibility is the strength of The Van – a man bought so low he relies on his teenage son slipping him a fiver so that he can afford to buy a round at the pub (as long as there’s only himself, Bimbo and Bertie).

Jimmy Sr spends his endless days lost – checking out the library, playing with his grandchild, walking the dog – and without any sense of purpose. It changes when Bimbo gets laid off from the bakery: Jimmy can share his new found knowledge of the area. But it’s a hollow victory. Both men soon become lost and aimless.

And then Bimbo buys the decrepit van and goes into partnership with Jimmy Sr. A fish and chip business just in time for the World Cup (as long as they can get it clean) with plans to set themselves up outside the pub or prime coastal spots. Against the odds, it’s a financial windfall for both men in spite of the low quality goods they’re serving through the hatch.

But it’s Bimbo’s wife, Maggie, who has the business acumen. Decisions are made without any reference to Jimmy: but then Bimbo bought the van, so is it a real partnership? Enclosed in cramped conditions, temperatures rise and their relationship shifts and changes.

Farcical humour abounds as Jimmy and Bimbo slip and slide through the narrative (literally – a little too much chip fat, ketchup and oil gets spilt in the confines of the van) or a gang of kids rock the vehicle ‘for the crack’. But, overall, it just ain’t funny.

Pints (in great quantities) are drunk; comments are made about friends, neighbours, passing females; food is served along with a volley of wisecracks; the achievements of the Irish football team celebrated – all in a novel that is predominantly dialogue. ‘Hilarious’, ‘wonderfully funny’, ‘faultless comic writing’ are all plaudits writ large on the cover.

Maybe in the 90s it was. But tastes [sic] change and The Van is as hard on the palate as the burgers Jimmy and Bimbo serve up. Doyle’s novel was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker prize, but lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson

9781408808870Having read English at Cambridge under F. R. Leavis and taught the subject at Selwyn College, Cambridge, you just know anything written by Howard Jacobson will not fall under ‘light read.’ But what you may not be prepared for is the wit, irony and warmth alongside the satire and intelligence. Even on a second reading, The Finkler Question made me laugh out loud.

Jacobson is tackling one mighty difficult and potentially contentious issue in The Finkler Question – that of Jewish identity alongside male friendship.

It is through the friendship of three men – former schoolmates Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler and their teacher, Libor Sevcik – that Jacobson explores his subject, an exploration that is at once brilliantly funny yet with a deep melancholic sense of loss and longing.

Through the three men, opinions and opposing philosophies of what exactly is Jewish identity are voiced, discussed and debated – from the strident, anti-Zionist, Israeli-hating Finkler through to the ‘convert’ that is Treslove, more orthodox than any of his friends as he reads 12th century Maimonides on the reasoning for circumcision or demands answers to his questions of, how he sees it, the innate ‘Jewish’ cleverness of the use language. A 90 year-old Czech, Libor sits somewhere between the two men.

A former BBC radio producer (a minor position – an early morning arts programme on Radio 3), Treslove is a melancholic lost soul – a father of two (adult) boys to separate women, both of whom chose not tell him of their respective pregnancies. His great love is the great operatic tragedies. It is he who labels Jews at Finklers, having met his first Jew at school in the guise of Sam/Samuel/Shmuel/Shmueli (several identities in one…). This new word “…took away the stigma, sucked out the toxins.” A late night mugging a few yards from the BBC in Portland Place following an evening with Sam and Libor leads to Julian questioning his sense of who and what he is.

As a result, The Finkler Question becomes, in part, Julian as a Gentile and his relationship with Judaism and ‘Jewishness’. But in ostensibly looking at Libor, Sam and other characters as Jews and how Julian ‘measures up’, The Finkler (Jewish) Question is as much about the sense of belonging and the associated obligations/expectations of that belonging.

As an anti-Zionist, is Sam a lesser Jew? Hephzibah only introduces a kosher kitchen at the behest of Julian yet she is the director of the planned Anglo-Jewish Cultural Centre. Tyler, Sam’s wife, was a convert. Yet, in spite of her upholding the religious customs and beliefs more than Sam, as a reformist, she was not totally accepted. And deep down, Julian himself despairs of the religion that he does not fully grasp or can ever, ultimately, be part of.

The Finkler Question is something of a meandering narrative, jumping in time and place. It verges on plotless per se other than as a stream of (Jewish) consciousness. Julian finds some of the answers to his questions: some of the questions he doesn’t understand himself. Both Sam and Libor deal with their grief at the loss of their wives in their own ways.

Anti-Semitism does rear its ugly head in obvious ways but also in surprising ways – The Finkler Question continues to challenge and question assumptions. People – Jews and non-Jews alike – come ago, vehicles for Jacobson to propound yet more opinions (occasionally over-contrived – Julian’s youngest son a Holocaust denier). And Treslove’s neurotic obsession occasionally palls (Maimonides?).

But the 2010 Booker Prize winner is a seamless roll of pathos and humour, of philosophy and politics, relentless in its search for a truth. Not that Jacobson is going to answer The Finkler Question – mainly because there is not one answer. Put two Jews in a room and you’ll get three very different opinions. Welcome to The Finkler Question.

 

‘Vernon God Little’ by DBC Pierre

9780571215164An assured debut novel, Vernon God Little is a rites-of-passage full of sour and coruscating verbal wit that verges on the farcical. Akin to the vicious satire of the likes of Vonnegut, it’s a telling indictment of small town America’s mindless consumer culture and the glorification of dysfunction – with 15 year-old Vernon Little its victim. As the narrator, it’s Vernon and his perspective of his 15 minutes of fame that the story is told.

A gun tragedy at the High School in Martirio, Texas has left 16 students dead, including the perpetrator, schoolboy Jesus Navarro Rosario. But with Jesus dead, the grieving town is left without a sense of closure or justice. Cue Vernon God Little. As the killer’s best friend, he survived, evidence of his guilt. As national media descend on the town, so the Sheriff’s department move on Vernon to prove his collusion.

Vernon God Little is told in five acts, with the first two finding Vernon – like his friend, Jesus, an outsider in the close-knit community – struggling to make sense of what’s happening around him. Accused of being an accessory, the only people he cares about are either dead or appear to be more concerned with fame and worldly goods (his mother misses all legal appointments due to the delivery of a fridge). Cool as he thinks he might be, Vernon in reality is a mere boy way out of his depth of understanding. And it’s about to get a lot worse as news crews swarm into town.

Things do get a lot worse as Vernon makes a run for it and flees to Mexico, but his too brief sojourn sees him arrested, returned to Texas to face trial for 34 murders and, on being found guilty, is sentenced to death.

Farcical or what? Yet beneath that over-the-top course of events is a scathing critique as reality television, fast food, religion, the death penalty all come under Pierre’s comic microscope.

In spite of being in Mexico, Vernon is positively identified for more and more murders across Texas. A reality television programme is introduced where death-row inmates are put on camera as entertainment with television audiences deciding the order of executions – which in themselves are televised.

In Vernon Little, Australian DBC Pierre has created a fabulously confused commentator who is in part an archetypal contradictory adolescent, part mouthpiece for the author’s corrosive opinions.

The high-octane Vernon Little God won the 2003 Booker Prize a rank outsider when the longlist was announced, beating favourite Monica Ali and Brick Lane.

‘The Riders’ by Tim Winton

tim-winton-the-ridersA rare foray away from his native Western Australia results is possibly Tim Winton’s weakest narrative. The Riders is still beautifully written but its breathless storyline where Scully and his traumatised young daughter, Billie, frantically cross Europe searching for wife/mother Jennifer simply grates. And it leaves so many questions unanswered.

Opening in a wet and miserable Ireland, Scully renovates a remote rundown cottage, purchased on a whim. Apprehensive, so far removed from the Western Australian lifestyle of sunshine and beach, Scully works through his loneliness, buoyed by the soon-to-return pregnant Jennifer and young Billie following the sale of their Fremantle home.

The Riders is at its strongest as Winton introduces Scully, a working-class bloke “…with a severely used face”, slaving away in misery and his memories of a recent history – lyrical and supple prose of more than two years in Europe with his family flitting between London, Paris and the Greek islands. But their sojourn was not in the lap of luxury. Instead, Scully had worked like a dog for cash in heavy duty labouring jobs to enable Jennifer to explore her ’artistic potential.’

After several years on the road, the couple plan to settle in Ireland, renovate and raise their family. Jennifer had returned to Australia to sell their house and settle affairs. But Scully’s world falls apart when seven year-old Billie arrives at Dublin airport alone.

Billie, traumatised and unable to talk to her beloved father, cannot explain what has happened. Confirming she had travelled to London with the seven year-old, so begins a frantic odyssey across Europe where Scully, with Billie in tow, retraces the family’s steps. As a creature of habit, Jennifer will return to a place she knows is Scully’s logic.

A wet and cold out-of-season Hydra is the first call, but the Greek island produces no results yet sets the pace for the rest of the book. Tormented by fear, Scully becomes irrational and desperate in his belief that there’s a logical explanation for Jennifer’s disappearance. Florence, Paris, Amsterdam are crazed ships in the night as father and a resilient daughter pass through, more and more desperate as he fails to find any trail and the money begins to run out.

The momentum continues to rise to an almost breathless level as Scully teeters on the edge, losing his grasp on reality and placing Billie in perilous situations. Yet Billie’s understanding compliance facilitates Scully’s continued obsession as he confronts his inner demons.

A rites-of-passage as Scully comes to understand more about himself and the relationships with his wife, The Riders is both captivating and infuriating. What he does to Billie is beyond comprehension. Ditto what Jennifer does to both of them.

The Riders was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize (Winton’s first) but lost out to Pat Barker and The Ghost Road.

 

 

‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

61yx2cz9dml-_sl1231_-1In my mind, one of the finest novels ever written – a sensitive, humane yet deeply political commentary on the India of the 1970s during the government-declared State of Emergency along with the accompanying levels of corruption and abuses of power. Sobering, devastating yet deeply haunting, A Fine Balance may be a fiction, but it’s not made up.

Central to Mistry’s narrative are four individuals whose lives become deeply entwined, all poor and surviving (just) on the edges. It is through Dina, Maneck Ishvar and his nephew, Om, in both their current connected lives and separate backstories that the panoramic sweep of the decade moves forward.

Their histories are all tragic yet seemingly commonplace in a desperately poor country of close on half a billion people.

Having escaped her overbearing and expectant brother and married for love, Dina finds herself widowed after just three years. Only the common sense of retaining the tiny, dingy, rent-controlled apartment in central Bombay prevents her from returning to a life of benevolent slavery to Nawaz, his wife and two young sons.

Struggling financially over the years, she takes to renting out her bedroom to Maneck, a student and son of a former school friend. His family has fallen on hard times. Living in the Himalayan foothills, owning extensive lands, the stroke of a British colonial pen placed the family holdings on the wrong side of a border. Only the General Store remains. The advent of tarmacked new roads, tourism and multinationals are the death-knell for small family-run businesses: his father pushes Maneck into looking beyond the shop for his future.

But the saddest histories belong to Ishvar and Om, victims of a caste system deeply rooted in social inequity and injustice. Untouchables in their village, the two are forced into a life of destitution following the public murder of their extended family at the hands of the local head honcho.

The four become unlikely companions and friends as they eventually find themselves living in the Bombay flat.

Initially, Dina employs Ishvar and Om as tailors. But their frequent unexplained absences make her suspicious of their commitment and motivation: it’s only a quiet word here and there from Maneck that balances her sentiment and prejudice. Yet it is in these moments of ‘absence’ that the true horrors of the State of Emergency are revealed – the rounding up of beggars and enforced slave labour schemes, the demolition of shantytowns through the Beautification Scheme, the rampant corruption at all levels. And it is those at that bottom that suffer every time.

Ishvar and Om are constant victims – they lose their mud and corrugated iron shantytown home: they’re forced to attend a prime ministerial rally with hundreds of thousands of others on the edge of town: they find themselves enslaved in a quarry for ‘food’ and lodging. They have no choices – the two are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re two of the millions born poor and therefore voiceless.

Yet, at times, in spite of the trials and travails, the four also manage to find some happiness. It takes a while in coming – similar in age, Maneck and Om become firm friends: Ishvar is a benevolent, indulgent uncle. A panicked Dina, desperate to avoid turning to her brother, is the thorn in the side. But her loneliness and exposure to others’ sufferings soften Dina’s attitude towards her employees.

But the horrors of injustice are never far away and A Fine Balance is full of apprehension – nothing good lasts forever (or, here, for very long). The narrative continues unabated.

Names may not be named (even Bombay is only ever referred to as the City by the Sea) but the corruption of Indira Gandhi’s power-hungry regime and the inexplicable actions carried out in her name are captured in Mistry’s second novel. It’s 600 plus pages of the ugliness of human behaviour when power is presented or provided. But it’s also 600 pages of a deeply humane story of enduring and surviving, living or dying, of human endurance. A fine balance. And one of the finest novels ever written.

Inexplicably, whilst shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, it lost out to Graham Swift’s good but not as memorable Last Orders.  

‘On Beauty’ by Zadie Smith

OnBeautybookcoverOn second reading, Zadie Smith’s acerbic third novel, On Beauty, fails to make any real emotional impact.

Essentially the story of two feuding families in the rarefied atmosphere of academia and a (fictional) New England university just outside Boston, On Beauty is contrived and predictable, populated with a host of generally unlikeable characters.

Set in London, Smith’s first book, White Teeth, was full of life – street-wise sass, larger-than-life characters, snappy dialogue. To some extent she has attempted to replicate the sass and savvy with the Belsey family – and in 52 year-old Kiki (wife and mother), an African-American woman from Florida and “a solid two hundred and fifty pounds [with a] beautiful tough girl face”, Smith has succeeded.

But sadly Kiki operates in a vacuum. Husband Howard is an untenured lecturer and art historian at Wellington College, a stereotypical liberal, shambolic academic. He may love his wife and three teenage kids (in his own way), but he is out of touch with the world around him and unable to communicate effectively with family, colleagues or students. A recently revealed (albeit short-lived) affair has certainly strained the usually rambling and boisterous Belsey family home.

The news that Monty Kipps, a black conservative professor and Howard’s nemesis as both art historian and humanitarian, has been offered a secondment at Wellington sends the Belseys into a tailspin. Howard, due to a lack of focus and commitment, has repeatedly failed to deliver his book on Rembrandt. An arrogant and foppish Monty has recently had published his own book on Rembrandt to critical acclaim.

Characters come and go throughout On Beauty. Howard fails to prevent Monty moving to Wellington – and to cap it all, the Kipps family move into a house not so far from the Belseys. Against the grain, Kiki becomes friends with Carlene Kipps – although this relationship is more than a little strained. Lonely and rarely in the company of her husband, Carlene is something of an ‘academia widow’ as far as Kiki is concerned. But Carlene has her own secret she choses not to share with family or friends. Her oddness and vagueness is later revealed when the secret proves to be a terminal cancer.

So much for the adults (throw into the mix various academic peers – the beatnik female poet, Claire; Erskine – Head of Black Studies and Howard’s best friend; the tiresome and longwinded Dean).

On the teenage front, Zora Belsey is precociously and arrogantly academic, an opinionated activist admired rather than liked by her peers and teachers at Wellington. She is very much ‘her father’s daughter.’ Jerome, the eldest Belsey child, is sensitive and intelligent, choosing to study at Brown University rather than stay at home. Much to the dismay of his parents, Jerome has recently found God and the Church. Levi is the odd child out – the youngest with an aversion to study but an interest in Rap, Hip-Hop and ‘street’. A chance encounter results in him becoming involved in the Haitian cause.

In the Kipps family home remains only 18 year-old Victoria (her brother Michael choses to stay in London). She is sexually active and uses her beauty to her advantage, especially as a new student at Wellington.

All characters meet and clash – Zora’s relationship with Victoria mirrors that of their fathers; Monty is suspicious of Kiki’s motives towards Carlene. Both Howard and Jerome have encounters with Victoria.

But there’s just too much ‘chance’ or ‘serendipity’ in On Beauty. The Kipps and the Belseys both ‘happen’ to be in London at the same time to enable them all to attend a funeral: Levi ‘happens’ to become interested in the Haitian cause just as the Kippses arrive in Wellington – both Monty and Carlene are from Haiti. External student Chantelle, intern to Monty, ‘happens’ to work part-time at the same record megastore as Levi. It’s all a little too convenient, structured to enable the episodic narrative to progress.

Yet, in spite of the negativity towards On Beauty, there were a number of high points – and the last few pages, the culmination of all that had gone before them, were as good as anything Smith has written (at least in the other books of hers I have read). The title ‘On Beauty’ comes from a poem – Smith comments, throughout, on different perceptions of beauty. Skin deep comes to mind as, throughout, the hypocrisy of opinion and action becomes more and more prevalent. The two patriarchs are (predictably) proven to be the biggest hypocrites. But they are certainly not the only ones.

All the characters are struggling beneath the weight of personal expectations placed upon them. Added to which Smith explores the dynamics of race and gender in contemporary America through what is essentially a domestic drama against the backdrop of academia. But On Beauty feels as if Smith is also struggling under that weight – the critical disappointment to her sophomore novel, The Autograph Man, after the raves bestowed on White Teeth.

Interestingly, On Beauty was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (it lost out to the execrable The Sea by John Banville) – an achievement that outstripped the multi-award winning White Teeth in 2000.

 

 

‘Bliss’ by Peter Carey

blissAn acerbic commentary on family, consumerism, advertising and bourgeois avarice, Carey’s debut novel was presented with the 1981 Miles Franklin Award.

As Harry Joy hovers above his prone body in the opening pages, dead for nine minutes before being revived, he looks around his wealthy suburban home of a successful Australian east coast advertising executive. At just 39 years old, he has suffered a massive coronary.

But Harry wakens in the hospital convinced he has died and in Hell, this new world populated by actors playing roles. His beautiful wife Bettina is unfaithful and in the process of leaving Harry for his trusted business partner, Joel. And his teenage children are not the innocents he believes them to be – son Harry a drug dealer dreaming of working for the Colombian cartel; daughter Lucy more than prepared to bestow sexual favours on her brother in return for a hit.

Life at 25 Palm Avenue has definitely changed. Having met with Honey Barbara – part-time dope grower, part-time hooker – and her hippy, pantheistic outlook, Harry is quick to divest clients who do not meet his newly acquired ethical standards. As Harry’s suspicions and paranoia grow, his determination to become a Good Person grows.

The family conspire to have him committed. Not that that’s particularly difficult – along with his convictions and financial suicide, the local mental home is a privatised business and any patient, sane or otherwise, means subsidy dollars for Dr Alice Dalton.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to Bliss. In this unspecified tropical, humid rainforest (likely to be Queensland), everything and everyone is a little strange and more than a little odd.

Harry doesn’t stay in the hospital for very long. Money gets him in, money gets him out. And Honey Barbara is now part of his life in Palm Avenue, in spite of her hatred for all things poisonous (living in a commune in the middle of nowhere, everything about city life is poisonous). But nothing is easily settled in the Joy family –  Joel now lives in the Palm Avenue home, even if Bettina no longer feels any love for him.

Bliss is all a little crazy and anarchic, with pauses to the flow of narrative every few pages that creates a staccato reading. This structure does at times make it difficult to ‘get into’ the swing of the novel, added to which Carey is not adverse to occasionally fast-forwarding 20 years to inform us of the conclusion of a particular event or story. But Carey’s prose is beautifully descriptive and accessible – and the black, black humour is, mostly, captivating.

It’s not my favourite Carey novel – it digresses at times, annoys at others – but there is no doubting its deep humanity and love of its subject and subjects.

 

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

a-spool-of-blue-threadThe Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler treads familiar ground with her 20th novel: the importance of complex family relationships and the struggles by parents and siblings alike to assert their individualities within a shared existence. And, like so many of her earlier stories, A Spool of Blue Thread is set in Baltimore.

A leafy Baltimore suburb is home to the Whitshank family in a large, sprawling house built by Junior Whitshank in the late 1930s. Now, daughter-in-law and ex-social worker Abby rules the roost with an excess of love, energy and irrepressible enthusiasm as she (s)mothers her husband Red and four adult children – even if they have long moved out, married and had children of their own. Or at least three have.

The eldest boy, Denny, is proving to be something of an enigma to Abby and Red. Having dropped out of college, he has adopted an itinerant lifestyle and only occasionally contacts members of the family. Most of the time the Whitshanks have no idea where Denny may be.

A Spool of Blue Thread is a chronicle of the Whitshanks family life told over three generations in four sections. There is little reflection on times past per se – Tyler choses to bookend the present day family story whilst telling Abby and Red’s 1959 courtship and the meeting of Junior and Linnie Mae in the 1930s separately. Family fortunes and misfortunes, jealousies petty or otherwise, death, illness, sadness, joy, changes and constancy all inevitably form part of the Whitshank history. And there’s certainly a twist or two.

But A Spool of Blue Thread is all a bit too hollow, too cutesy and homely as apple pie. Anne Tyler has a reputation for her characterisation yet none of the contemporary Whitshanks are particularly interesting – due in part to the fact that most of them are only walk-on characters. The one-dimensional eldest siblings Amanda and Jeannie are present but have little presence: their husbands – both named Hugh – and children even less so. Denny is the black sheep of the family – but he remains an enigma to us all. As a character portrayal, A Spool of Blue Thread fails badly

Ultimately, it’s wane and tedious. The so-called courtship of Junior and Linnie Mae is diverting enough and Tyler captures the mores of the time beautifully. But overall I just didn’t care enough about any of the characters and this oh-so-white existence in its Baltimore bubble. I’m not looking for melodrama, a breathless narrative or even an overtly political statement, but a little grit here and there would not go amiss. But then that’s not Tyler’s style.

A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the 2015 Mann Booker Prize but it (thankfully) lost out to Marlon James and A Brief History of Seven Killings.