‘The Dark Room’ by Rachel Seiffert

The stories of three ordinary Germans and how war – and World War II in particular – impacts on their lives forms the basis of Rachel Seiffert’s debut novel.

Born with a non-serious congenital condition – a missing muscle in his chest – Helmut is a boy who is sidelined by sport-playing schoolfriends and, as a young adult, is unable to join the German army at the outbreak of war. Instead, an embarrassment to his working-class, Nazi party member parents, Helmut stalks the streets as a photographer, documenting the slow depopulation of Berlin.

Lore is a young teenage girl given the responsibility of taking her siblings across a Germany decimated by war and zoned by the Allies. With parents arrested as senior members of the Nazi party, Lore needs to keep heads low and find a way from Bavaria to the northern port of Hamburg and the home of her grandmother.

The longest story is that of Micha who, in 1997, researches the role his beloved grandfather, Opa, played as a Waffen SS member stationed in a small Belorussian village. Alienating his family in the process, travelling alone to the village on three separate occasions, Micha becomes obsessed with the need to identify and face the truths of the past.

The Dark Room is a fascinating, if somewhat uneven, exploration of guilt, innocence, truth and morality. He never fires a shot, but how culpable is the patriotic Helmut? Micha meets Jozef in Belarus, a collaborator who did not believe the anti-Semitic propaganda even as he murdered Jews – it was simply ‘a lie that made sense.’ For him, 40 years later, there is no point where apologising can bring redemption, such is the gravity of his actions. In the strongest narrative, as Lore finally arrives with her siblings in an almost unrecognisable Hamburg, it is the grandmother who asks her young charges not to judge their parents. ‘They are good people. They did nothing wrong.’ Micha would strongly disagree with such a comment 40 years later.

Deceptively simple in style, The Dark Room is a provocative read that was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize – but which lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

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‘Norwegian Wood’ by Haruki Murakami

Whilst Norwegian Wood is not my personal favourite Murakami novel, the poignant and nostalgic love story, developed from a short story (Firefly) and set in 1969/70, shot him to superstardom in his native Japan on its publication in 1987 (much to his dismay at the time).

As his Boeing 747 comes into land at Hamburg airport, the playing of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood through the tannoy system sends Toru Watanbe on a trip down memory lane of events twenty years earlier.

A student in Tokyo, Watanbe is far from his family home in Kobe, where his best friend Kizuki, at the age of seventeen, took his own life. A conscious decision to put as many miles between him and the sad events, Watanbe meets, by chance, the beautiful but emotionally fragile Naoko – former girlfriend of Kizuki.

A strange, distant friendship evolves. But Naoko is too unstable (her sister also committed suicide) and is sent to a distant sanatorium by her family. Left in Tokyo, a lonely Watanabe is adrift, an outsider in a world of unequal friendships, casual sex – and an unrequited love for Naoko. An occasional visit to the peaceful solitude of the sanatorium provides him with contact (and where he meets Naoko’s room mate, the older and wiser Reiko). But with the arrival into his life of a lively and impetuous Midori, Watanabe finds himself having to make choices.

Elegant, elegiac and deeply profound, Norwegian Wood is no saccharine-sweet nostalgia trip. Instead, its an urgent attempt to preserve an exquisitely painful time and address, full-frontal, death and grief and abuse – yet with a warmth and gentle, experienced wisdom.

‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns

Sometimes brilliant, more often than not infuriating, the 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel by Anna Burns is a polarising experience. It took me some eight months to read it – and, four months in, wished I had heeded the advice of a friend who suggested the audio version and for it to be treated as a staged monologue.

Essentially a stream of consciousness from an 18 year-old woman living during the sectarian ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, our narrator uses few names as she expounds and expands on daily life in a run down catholic Belfast neighbourhood. In her attempt to distance herself from the politics of the area – or at least not become attached – she (we only ever never know her as middle sister or maybe-girlfriend) finds herself isolated and misunderstood by those around her. When Milkman – a married man and leading paramilitary – introduces himself uninvited into her life, by default to the gossips she becomes his property. Even her own ma believes middle-sister as thrown herself at Milkman and thus ruined her reputation.

Milkman is a battle from the outset. As a stream of consciousness and uncertainty, the same thought can be questioned, challenged, opined, regurgitated over pages – and made even more infuriating by not naming names. An obtuse shorthand results in the right or wrong religion; renouncers and defenders of the State; our side of the road and the other side of the road; over the border and over the water. Family members become oldest sister, wee sisters (the triplets), brother-in-law number 3, non-family members are referred to as Maybe-Boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody, Longest Friend and so on. In an attempt to distance the events from the specifics of Northern Ireland and suggest the impact of other experiences, societies and environs, Anna Burns creates a distance, an emotional void to the events unfolding.

The novel is unquestionably an astute account of Northern Ireland’s social landscape of the 1970s, of a divided and untrusting community and based on the author’s own experiences. It is, at times, enigmatic, beguiling and, occasionally, funny. Yet, for all that, it’s a meandering, repetitive slog.

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion’s debut novel is the 21st century book equivalent of the Hollywood screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Wit percolates throughout as geneticist professor Don Tillman, firmly somewhere on the spectrum, looks for love and a wife. With the aid of Gene, philandering head of department and his best friend, Don draws up a sixteen page questionnaire to scientifically identify his ideal wife partnership, covering attitudes towards punctuality, diet, smoking and more.

But, for a man dictated by rules and precise schedules (three minutes for a shower, one minute to dress, eight minutes to cycle to the university), he soon discovers that not everything goes according to the best laid plans. Meeting Rosie results in emotions coming into play.

Naturally, Rosie is everything that Don believes beyond the pale – an occasional smoker, excessive drinker, vegetarian (although she will eat sustainable fish and seafood), dyes her hair red – and more. But then their relationship is based on the Father Project as, as far as Don is concerned, Rose has failed the Wife Project anyway. The Father Project is Don helping Rosie to identify her father through (the unethical and illegal) gathering of DNA from likely suspects and testing in the university labs.

We all know where it’s heading (although, thankfully, a moment when Gene is in the paternal reckoning is quickly laid to rest) but Simsion’s warm-hearted, frequently laugh-out-loud tale as Don struggles to logically understand the behaviour of others but who ultimately fails his own tests is a real charmer, full of heart and generosity of spirit.

‘Gilgamesh’ by Joan London

An acclaimed and award-winning short story writer, Joan London’s storytelling and spare, concise language comes to the fore in her first novel, published in 2001.

Two young teenage sisters, Edith and Frances, struggle to survive on a small, isolated farm in the south-west of Australia. Their father recently died, their mother drifts in and out of reality (or creates her own). It’s 1937 when, out of the blue, cousin Leopold appears along with Aram, his Armenian friend.

For the unworldly Edith, their arrival shakes the very foundations of her everyday. Conversation and laughter arrives in the decrepit shack the women call home. She is swept away as Aram tells his story of the Armenian massacre in 1915 and the murder of his parents, the orphanage in Aleppo, his homeland. But mythical tales of adventures are also told – including that of Gilgamesh, the legendary King of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. It is his journey of mourning, a journey undertaken with his friend Enkedu, that resonates with Edith.

Two years later, with Europe on the brink of war, Edith sets off with her young son, Jim, to find the two men, with London her first stop.

Spanning continents and generations, Joan London’s Gilgamesh is a modern day exploration of the epic poem – or a quest as Edith follows her own journey in search of Aram, the father of her child. From London, it takes her to Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Syria before finally returning to Australia. On her way, she meets some extraordinarily strong women (particularly in Armenia) and dodgy men and, whilst occasionally Gilgamesh turns into something of an episodic soap opera, it’s a compelling tale.

Shortlisted for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award, Joan London and Gilgamesh lost out to Tim Winton and Dirt Music.

‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is based loosely on the true story of the remote Derbyshire village of Eyam. In 1665, as plague swept the country, the villagers, persuaded by their young minister, Michael Mompesson, chose to isolate themselves. But this was not fear of the plague reaching them. An infected bolt of cloth sent from London had already seen to that. The villagers voluntarily cut themselves off to prevent the disease being carried further. It’s an astonishing story of a community, of survival, of death, of faith, of sacrifice packed with historical detail.

Brooks chooses to tell her tale through the voice of Anna Frith, a young widow and housemaid to Mompellion (the fictional minister). Right from the off, we know some great tragedy has occurred.

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and signs and sounds that said this year it would be all alright: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came….This year the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

Anna is a survivor from, it is revealed, a disease that wiped out more than half of the village in less than a year. It is her lodger, a young Mr Viccars, who, as a travelling tailor, is the first victim. It is he who has ordered the death-carrying cloth. Anna’s two young sons soon join him. The plague seeds spread quickly, regardless of age, gender and wealth. Every household is affected. Whole families are wiped out: parents die, their children survive: parents survive, their children die. As the community diminishes, faith frays, blame apportioned.

A relatively peaceful homogenous village disintegrates: the self-sufficiency of rural life is decimated. It is Anna and Elinor Mompellion who look to maintain the spirits of the locals – and help care for those stuck down by the virulent disease. But they are also the voice of reason – commentators on the small minority who take advantage of the situation, including Anna’s own father, for personal gain.

In spite of the knowledge from the very beginning that tragedy strikes and a vast percentage of the village will be wiped out, Brooks still manages to create a surprising level of suspense in Year of Wonders. It’s a deeply moving and affecting story as seen through the young Anna’s eyes. Knowing she survives to recount the story allows the reader to grow with her as she moves from a tongue-tied housemaid to a vocal critic of Mompellion and other men of the village. She is a woman who takes charge in cases of need.

It’s only the somewhat contrived ending of Brooks novel that denies its classic status. When the plague seems to be finally dying out, events unfold and secrets revealed that are wholly unexpected and, in reality, unnecessary. The result, to my mind, is that the last 20 pages or so undermine all that has gone before it. Which is a pity, as Year of Wonders is an eminently readable and laudable debut novel.

‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe

As his troubled family life collapses around him, young Francie Brady retreats into a world of make-belief and violent fantasy.

Set in small-town Ireland in the 1960s, Patrick McCabe’s grim tragicomedy of madness and abuse sees the emotional breakdown of a young boy as he struggles to differentiate between fact and fiction. With an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother committed to an institution, home life is violent, abusive and unstable. His friendship with Joe is the only stabilising part of his life. But as Francie becomes more and more unhinged, even Joe disowns him.

The focus for Francie’s violent and crazed fantasies is Mrs Nugent, the posh, judgmental, recently-arrived-from-England neighbour. A brash and defiant Francie stands up to her – leading to an institution for himself, where one of the priests abuses him but where he is also befriended by the ex-IRA gardener.

The Butcher Boy is a rollercoaster ride, ultimately unpleasant as Francie slips more and more into crazed madness. From the outset, we have an indication of what we’re in for – the opening page sees Francie in hiding on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent. All is revealed over the course of the relatively short but dense novel.

It’s Francie himself who is the narrator of what is essentially an allegory for the relationship between Ireland and England and the effects of the long colonial history between the two countries. But this is no agit-prop prophesising tome – The Butcher Boy is a deeply personal, surprisingly compassionate tale of madness, violence and loyalty. It’s just not a very pleasant or easy read.

Shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize, Patrick McCabe’s Irish Times-Aer Lingus Prize for fiction winning novel lost out to the joint winning The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje) and Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth.

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller

Narrated by ex-stockman Bobby Blue, Coal Creek is a rich, evocative novel on the nature of loyalty, friendship and love. Tough yet poetic, hard yet delicate, Alex Miller’s eleventh novel is a powerful, simply told tale. 

An account of events some 15 years earlier when Bobby was just twenty years old, and conveyed in an ungrammatical local vernacular, his is a convincing voice, finding himself caught between loyalty towards his childhood friend, Ben Tobin, and his new boss.

Set in early 1950s Queensland and the isolated highlands of the hinterland, Mount Hay is cattle country with a small, residential population set in its ways. The arrival from the coast of the new constable, Daniel Collins, and his family leads to a simmering tension that ultimately ends in tragedy. 

With ideas and values learnt mainly from books and a war spent in a kill-or-be-killed New Guinea, Collins is a man who notes down everything, but, to the likes of Bobby and the other Mount Hay residents, ultimately sees nothing. 

“People like the Collins knew the city and the coast and they have another way of seeing things that was not our way of seeing things. The Collins wanted to know what they had no need to know…They was not bad people, just ignorant.”

Collins’ inability to read and understand his new environment results in three dead and lives changed forever. 

Having left the cattle station on the death of his father and the only way of life he knows, a laconic Bobby decides to try his luck as the off-sider to the new police constable. But Collins is the total opposite to his laidback predecessor. Struggling to understand the ways of the town, Collins invites Bobby to stay in a hut in the police compound. But the constable is not a man to listen or take guidance – and Bobby soon falls into a habit of silence. This lack of local knowledge leads to initial misunderstandings and, along with well-meaning but misplaced interventions by his ambitious wife, Esme, mistrust. Bobby Blue’s friend, Ben Tobin, becomes the focus of this mistrust.

Living a few miles out of Mount Hay in the isolated Coal Creek with a young aboriginal woman, Ben is ‘not a big man but he was strong and quick as a snake. He had his own breed of pony that was just like him, stocky and reliable on his feet.’ The victim of gossip led to the initial crossing of paths for Tobin and Collins. Convinced that revenge is on Tobin’s mind, goaded by Esme, Collins looks to deal with the ex-stockman. But, with the revelation of Bobby’s reciprocated interest in the Collins’ elder daughter, Irie, an abrupt and ruthless change in attitude from her parents towards Bobby results. It’s at this point Miller skilfully increases the tension. We already know things will take a turn for the worse – Bobby has throughout his tale told us. But we just do not know in what way.

On migrating to Australia in the 1950s as a 16 year-old, Miller himself settled in Queensland and worked as a farmhand and stockman. It’s a country he knows well – and it’s a country he beautifully captures in Coal Creek. Bobby’s knowledge is such that he can navigate the bush in the dark – there’s a personal, learnt knowledge sitting alongside an almost spiritual connection to the land. Collins cannot come anywhere near close: the difference between him and Bobby is as much the difference, as he recognises himself, between Bobby and the local indigenous population in terms of an intimate connection to the land.

Coal Creek is a lucid, haunting, tragic tale that was awarded the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Award for Literature – but which inexplicably failed to even make the Miles Franklin Award shortlist.

‘Extinctions’ by Josephine Wilson

The winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Award is, to my mind, a novel of few merits, with its central protagonist, retiree Professor Fred Lothian, deeply repellent.

Fred is a man who, a recent widower, lives in a retirement village in suburban Perth in Western Australia. Whilst not exactly a recluse, he is an antisocial misery, consciously determined to be a grump. His two children are each in their own way lost to him. But then unexpected events around him force Fred to re-evaluate his values, identify his shortcomings and find some kind of redemption when the opportunity arises.

At least that’s what the writer would like us to think. But by then, it’s all a little too late and Fred’s redemption is too little, too late – certainly for his wife, Martha. No matter how many times the self-centred retired professor now recognises he should have helped chop the capsicums (a metaphor for a total lack of involvement in family life, preferring to close the home-office door to focus on his world-expertise in cement and concrete), their marriage, in the last few years, was not a happy one. Himself the scarred product of a dysfunctional Scottish family, Fred has contributed directly or indirectly to the destruction of his immediate family. Martha, it turns out, had an affair, Callum is confined to permanent care and his daughter Caroline, herself an academic, struggles with her own identity: she is indigenous, adopted as a young, abused child. Compounding her sense of uncertainty is the fact she is researching species extinction for a planned exhibition.

Past events of Fred’s life come to the fore as he faces the initially unwanted attention from Jan, his neighbour at the retirement village. Gregarious, Jan herself is involved in a family struggle as she looks to take on the legal guardianship of her five year-old grandson. It is she who forces the damaged Fred to address his past.

But why Extinctions? On one immediate level, it is only too apparent – Caroline’s forthcoming exhibition is an overt and obvious pointer. But there are so many strands to the concept – the end of the Lothian family line, the idea of the family unit itself, cultural loss et al. “In the end, all is allegory” reads the preface as relationships, knowledge, attitudes and emotions change, with Jan the catalyst. But so what? Very disappointing.

‘J’ by Howard Jacobson

A momentous catastrophe from the past shrouds an unconventional love story between two people, neither of whom ultimately knows who they actually are and where they came from. What Happened, If It Happened is of such dystopian magnitude that both Kevern and Ailinn survive in the small seaside town of Port Reuben where questions are rarely asked (and answers even rarer) and the past is just that – in the past. It’s a landscape where family histories have been erased, names changed, travel almost non-existent and undesirable art, music and books “not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude. Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done…” Art is therefore landscape painting, books predominantly romances and cookbooks whilst jazz has almost disappeared.

Meeting and falling in love with Ailinn opens Kevern’s world to increasing scrutiny. But it also results in the pair increasingly scrutinised. In spite of being born in Port Reuben, Kevern remains an outsider where immediate histories are remembered; it’s a place where his father would never say the letter j, choosing to place two fingers to his lips; it’s a place where the two lovers find their lives more and more intolerable.

That’s essentially the linear plot of J. But J is anything but linear. Complex, non-linear, Orwellian, theoretical, philosophical interjected with Jacobson’s wit and exploration of Jewish identity slowly reveals the depth of What Happened, If It Happened. J may be the first letter of jazz. But it’s also the first letter of a word never mentioned in the novel. Yet the symbolism of What Happened, If It Happened is unavoidable.Whilst never discussed in detail and clouded in mystery, with a large number of the population doubting that it actually happened – it’s strongly implied that it was a massive pogrom, a second (or in the scope of Jacobson’s novel, first) Holocaust.

Although interspersed with humour, J is bleak and disquieting. And it’s no easy read – there’s more than a hint of Jacobson exploring the idea (perverse though it may sound) of the need for anti-Semitism: What Happened, If It Happened is a cyclical “equipoise of hate”. The deeply hidden sense of ‘other’ needs to be rooted out and allowed to flourish in order for it to start all over again.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.