‘Quarantine’ by Jim Crace

quarantineThe story of Christ in the wilderness for forty days is hardly an obvious subject for a known atheist. But that’s exactly what Quarantine is – award-winning Jim Crace’s fifth novel.

Only Christ is one of a handful of characters who have travelled to live, temporarily, on the edge, looking for guidance and to secure resolution and transcendence in what Crace is presenting as a godless universe. But they have the misfortune of stumbling across Musa. A successful nomadic merchant left for dead by his companions, with only his young pregnant wife to care for him until his last breath, Musa survives (much to the chagrin of Miri).

Ever the entrepreneur, the odious Musa convinces the travellers that they are on his land – and must therefore pay rent for the caves they look to fast and find some kind of spiritual guidance. And food, water, home comforts are all available – at a price.

The metaphoric satanic Musa is very much centre stage of Crace’s short novel. Jesus is an enigmatic, almost ethereal character – in choosing the most inaccessible and distant cave, he is as remote as the landscape they have all chosen to meditate and commune with God. Unlike the others, who meet as the sun sets to break their fast, Jesus stoically continues, plagued by hallucinations and teetering towards madness, devoid of water and food for forty days.

A retelling of a familiar story – or at least its humanising: the unendurable suffering of a fast in such inhospitable environs; the need by Marta, looking to become fertile, for some home comforts in her cave; the ever-opportunistic Musa turning everything to his advantage. And, hardly surprising for an atheist, a Jesus who seems to have no divine origin but is simply a craftsman who takes religious instruction a great deal more seriously than his contemporaries.

Quarantine is a beautifully told, spellbinding narrative, its hallucinatory realism interlaced with humour and menace. The wilderness rendered in almost obsessive poetic detail: the beguiling master of words, Musa, a lecherous bully who, we know, will always land on his feet: a secular telling of a biblical story.

Shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize, Quarantine was reportedly the runner-up to the winner, Arundhati Roy and The God of Small Things.

 

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‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

9781741758207When The Slap first came out a little under 10 years ago, it felt like everyone was reading it – and had an opinion. ‘Whose side are you on?’ was the question.

A hard-edged dissection of middle-class suburban Australian living, a man slaps a four year-old child who is not his own at a family barbecue. From that moment on, the lives of friends and family, witness to the event, irrevocably change.

Centring around eight main characters, The Slap explores divided loyalties, family feuds, friendships pushed to breaking point as values, histories, family ties, social and gender politics are all placed firmly under the uncompromising microscope.

There’s no question, an over-indulged four year-old Hugo is popular neither with the other kids at the barbecue nor the adults. He’s already caused several scenes with his tantrums, including the breaking of a present (given to someone else) barely 20 minutes old. Appeasement is the order of the day – there’s obviously a history with Hugo and parents who do not believe in intervention. But brandishing a cricket bat at his son is the breaking point for Harry.

That’s the end of the barbecue.

What follows is a state-of-the-nation narrative, an ambitious, fractious social document that is at times funny, at times infuriating and a little too often, incredibly smug.

Set in the Melbourne inner-northern suburb of Northcote, gentrification and multiculturalism has changed what was once an essentially Greek working-class area. Tsiolkas reflects this.

Both Hector (Chapter 1) and his cousin Harry (Chapter 3) are Greek, with Hector married to Aisha (Indian – Chapter 7) and Harry to Sandi (Serb). Both men are having affairs – Hector with 17 year-old Connie (Chapter 4) and assistant to Aisha at her vet surgery: Harry is in a long-term relationship with a Lebanese woman and who supplies his cocaine from a Vietnamese dealer. They’re both narcissistic and display misogynist traits – particularly Harry. Connie lives with her aunt, the result of her parents both dying from AIDS five years earlier: her father was a bisexual heroine addict. Connie’s best friend, Richie (Chapter 8) has recently declared his homosexuality to her.

Add Islamic conversion, indigenous and migrant assimilation, alcoholism, ageing, class and dysfunctional parenting and the result is a fluid narrative (if nothing, the story is engrossing) that is somehow overdone. It’s a little too diverse and representative, a little too shoehorned.

Interestingly, no character is entirely likeable – although neither are they totally unlikeable, with the obvious exception of Rosie (Chapter 5) and Gary – the parents of Hugo. Tsiolkas has painted a grim harridan in Rosie where even Gary finds some of her behaviour with Hugo hard to stomach (she still breastfeeds the four year-old). Her involving the police in the ‘bashing’ of her son by ‘that animal’ and the subsequent court case is a crusade too far for many.

The Slap is something of a page-turner – although, like all soap operas, it can outstay its welcome at times as it meanders around the lives of the eight characters and their associates.

Favourite to win the 2009 Miles Franklin Award (having already collected the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the ALSS Gold Medal), The Slap lost out to Tim Winton and Breath.

 

 

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

28446947._UY1200_SS1200_My first experience of the award-laden Ali Smith – and I must admit I’m not totally sure what I have just read.

Is it the story of Elisabeth? Or is it the story of the 101 year-old Daniel Gluck, currently in a coma but where his dreams involve him as a fit, handsome young man? The two are former neighbours who struck up a friendship in spite of the enormous age difference (almost 70 years) between them. It is due to Daniel’s influence that Elisabeth is a junior lecturer in art history.

Is Autumn a story of history? Of memory? A socio-political, post-Brexit commentary? Past, present, future – Smith takes us on an ever-evolving journey as events of the past reflect in some way on the present (and therefore the future). There’s a sense of hopelessness and a lack of any sense of direction as Elisabeth sits by the bedside of Daniel. His non-responsiveness to external stimuli allows her to reflect on moments from her childhood.

But Smith’s latest is not a simple narrative of memory and recall. Her prose is not that straightforward!

In a time-fractured narrative, Elisabeth’s day-to-day experiences are interspersed with Daniel’s own fleeting memories of 1930s Germany and the Profumo sex scandal in 1960s Britain involving government ministers. A side-story is that of little known pioneer British Pop Artist, Pauline Boty, who died tragically young at the age of 25. The result is an expansive meditation on turning points in history – Profumo led to the ruling Conservative government losing the 1964 election, 1930s Germany saw the rise of fascism in Europe whilst Brexit has lead to massive schisms in British society.

Yet, for all its expansiveness and inventiveness, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, Autumn fails to engage. Its lack of coherency undermines its sensibility and Smith’s storytelling acumen. Her prose is, at times, beautifully written and deeply profound, but at other times deliberately obscure and pretentious – the literary equivalent of an art-house film. Argument is that life is hardly coherent, a maze through which we travel.

Autumn was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize (Smith’s fourth nomination) but lost out to American writer George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

‘The Hiding Place’ by Trezza Azzopardi

268016A debut novel, The Hiding Place is a memoir-like narrative as the adult Dolores returns to her childhood home following the death of her mother, Mary. It’s been many years since Dol was last in the much-changed Tiger Bay, Cardiff, the scene of extensive emotional and physical abuse within the family.

Fostered out when a mere five years old, Dol’s memories come flooding back as she wanders through the dilapidated terrace house, hemmed in by the semi-derelict neighbourhood. Five sisters; the handsome, debonair father; a beautiful but overtly nervous Mary – all consigned to history until today.

But many of Dol’s memories are unreliable, viewed from the perspective of the youngest child. As her sisters slowly appear in readiness for the funeral, so truths and altered memories are triggered. The change in perspective brings shattering realisations to Dol.

Disfigured by fire as a baby, abandoned by the serial gambler of a father who loses the family livelihood in a card game, ultimately abandoned by the mother as she dips in and out of sanity, Dolores looks back at a childhood of grim poverty and few opportunities. Instead of love and warmth, family life offered fear and reprisals, uncertainty and pain, hunger and neglect. The grimy 1960s dockside setting of Tiger Bay added to the desolation and sense of isolation.

It’s a disturbing tale of the gradual disintegration of the troubled Gauci family mirrored by the slow demolition of the city’s slums. Evocative in its telling, the girls are forced to navigate their lives and the irresponsibility of their parents. Yet it is only as an adult that Dol realises that the common experiences of her memories are not necessarily shared.

Much lauded on release, The Hiding Place was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize. A recent creative writing graduate, Trezza Azzopardi was sitting alongside the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro on that list. Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was presented with the award.

 

‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller

17930610One of Australia’s most consistent writers, Alex Miller has, in Lovesong, produced one of his finest books.

A haunting melancholia pervades, a poignancy almost too painful to witness as John Patterner tells the tale of a married couple living a life of love, dreams, compromise, deceit and almost unbearable sadness. It is his life, shared with the beautiful Sabiha and their young daughter, Houria.

The two meet in a café in Vaugirard, an off-the-tourist-track working-class neighbourhood in Paris. Sabiha, newly arrived from Tunisia, is living with her recently widowed aunt, Houria, owner of the Chez Dom. John enters the café having taken the wrong train to Chartres and a sudden rainstorm sends him searching for shelter. Spending a few months travelling away from his native Australia, John’s original plan was to spend only a few days in the French capital. Meeting Sabiha changes all that.

It’s almost twenty years before John returns to Australia and its here the book’s narrator, Ken, a successful novelist, first meets him and, over time, hears this plangent story.

Gentle, lyrical and poetic in its telling, a tragic love story unfolds among the fragrant spices and sweet pastries of Chez Dom with its predominantly male migrant North African customers searching for a home away from home. An unlikely yet contented marriage, running the café after the death of Houria, is overshadowed by the lack of the daughter Sabiha is convinced has always been promised her. Their lives are in limbo: the two have agreed they will return to Australia only after their daughter has met her Tunisian grandfather. Receiving news that her father is dying, the idea that Sabiha might die childless pushes her into taking action with tragic and unforeseen consequences.

A deceptively simply written narrative in the form of a therapeutic confession, Lovesong contains many hidden (and not so hidden) depths about love, relationships, loneliness, ageing. But it’s also a gift – Ken himself has ambitions for the tale with its believable characters who are vulnerable yet resilient, fragile yet tough when needed.

Shortlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award (Miller’s sixth), Lovesong lost out to Peter Temple and Truth.

 

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2015

1503647227678My first completed Miles Franklin Award shortlist for a given year! The Award, presented each year to a novel which “presents Australian life in any of its phases”, was first established back in 1957 (making it older than the Booker) with Patrick White and Voss the first recipient.

The 2015 Award was presented to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, the fourth woman in a row to win. The irony was not lost on the Australian literary world – following controversy over all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011, the alternative Stella Prize was established for novels written by women and first presented in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany and Mateship With Birds (a further irony is that the 2013 Miles Franklin Award shortlist was an all-women affair).

The 2015 shortlist:
Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys
Sofie LagunaThe Eye of the Sheep
Joan LondonThe Golden Age
Christine PiperAfter Darkness
Craig SherborneTree Palace

With the exception of Christine Piper’s debut novel After Darkness, the shortlisted books all feature children as significant characters and dealing with abuse, domestic violence, dysfunctionality and/or tensions within the family.

It was not a ‘classic’ year – the shortlist is a solid list of well-written books, predominantly domestic in theme and outlook, but which lack a greater perspective. Only Piper’s narrative of the internment of Japanese residents on Australian soil during World War II looks beyond the immediacy of environment, whether rural (Tree Palace) or suburban.

Strong in context – little is written about the internment of ‘aliens’ in Australia in WWII – but not very convincing in content, After Darkness is, to my mind, the weakest of the works on the shortlist. A renowned short story writer, Piper’s novel would have made an excellent long short story. Tree Palace also struggles – strong on authentic dialogue but its lack of social authenticity weakens the overall narrative.

The three novels directly involving children are the strongest works on the shortlist. Like Tree Palace, Joan London’s The Golden Age, whilst eminently readable, needed more social edginess in its telling of 1950s provincial Perth wracked by the devastating polio epidemic and its impact on a Hungarian refugee family, survivors of the war.

That leaves Golden Boys and The Eye of the Sheep, pretty neck-and-neck in my personal opinion. But by a very short head, I favoured Sonya Hartnett’s novel. Sofie Laguna’s story of six year-old Jimmy Flick was superb until the last chapter – a too-neat tying of knots and a father’s redemption having emotionally abused Jimmy throughout. Abuse is also prevalent in the disquieting Golden Boys, set in the 1970s and a time of confused innocence that turns out to be a rude, confronting coming-of-age with its own codes of conduct and justice.

So personally my vote would have gone to Golden Boys – but by so short a head that I have no issue with The Eye of the Sheep being favoured over Sonya Hartnett’s novel (and having recently met Sofie, I completely understand why she would not want her novel to spiral down into the dark underbelly of child abuse and leave the very loveable Jimmy in such a negative space).

 

‘Tree Palace’ by Craig Sherborne

imagesThe sense of an ending, of closure pervades Craig Sherborne’s elegiac second novel.

Moira and Shane are ‘trants’ (itinerants) roaming the north-western Victorian plains, settling wherever they can for a few days or, if they’re lucky, a few weeks. With Moira’s two teenage kids, Zara and Rory, and Midge, Shane’s brother, the family live on the edges, dossing down in disused properties and stripping heritage buildings when funds are low.

When they come across the run-down property outside the small (fictional) town of Barleyville, it appears to be perfect for their needs: things are looking up. For Moira, this could finally be a place to settle down. It’s also easy access to Alfie, the respectable outlet for Shane’s ‘antique business’. Problem is Zara, at 15, is a new mother and doesn’t want a bar of the newborn or trant lifestyle.

Displaced, never fully embraced by locals in towns with a sense of something closing, with shops boarded up and mail blackening the doorways like rot, they need each other to find their way. It’s Moira who holds them all together, we’re not bad people … We’ve got the shine off us, that’s all.

 It’s a vernacular novel – true rural Aussie yet simultaneously exposing a part that’s rarely seen or heard. It’s also a fairly entertaining one: Sherborne chooses to keep the tone relatively light with authentic dialogue and packed with hope. But there’s the rub – such marginalised lifestyles would not be quite so trouble free.

The establishment and authorities are present but other than the arrest of Shane, they are far too benevolent. Itinerants are rarely welcomed, seen as people living off welfare, getting something for nothing, contributing little. Closed rural communities would unlikely turn a blind eye to the squatting of their discovered personal Tree Palace – particularly after the birth of Mathew.

With the exception of Moira, it’s a novel populated with characters not particularly likeable (and Moira is no angel). The authenticity of dialogue and Sherborne’s commentary on the entrapment of rural poverty are beautifully modulated. Yet it needs more social authenticity. Bottom line is that I wanted to like Tree Palace more than I did.

Craig Sherborne’s Tree Palace was shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep.

‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey

9780143571209A meandering epic of a narrative, True History of the Kelly Gang is as much a commentary on corruption and prejudice in rural Victoria in the late 1800s as it is a history of the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly. But then Kelly’s story is a product of that corruption and prejudice. Whilst hardly an innocent (few were in those hardened times), Kelly, along with his dirt-poor Irish Catholic family, was as much a victim as perpetrator.

Ned Kelly himself is the narrator, a series of letters and notes to his daughter, written in his unschooled, semiliterate vernacular, providing this sweeping outback adventure a resounding voice of authenticity. As created by Peter Carey, it is this voice that carries the narrative – empathic, sympathetic, angry, fair, apologetic, at times resigned, at other times determined as Kelly speaks of events around him so that his daughter (born in California) may understand something of a father she likely will never meet.

A rebel, a bushranger, a thief, a murderer, a horse rustler, a common criminal – accusations flowed thick and thin from (usually corrupt) colonial police, politicians and landowners. But over time, he also became something of a local hero in the drought stricken, impoverished northern Victoria – a tough, no-nonsense larrikin who stood his ground and who, in attempting to survive and support his mother and younger siblings, found himself up against the establishment.

In a very bad year even the richest farmers … was pressed hard themselves and so harsher than usual to their poor neighbours. Through his connections in government the squatter Whitty had been permitted to rent the common ground and as a result a poor man could no longer find a place to feed his stock in all the drought stricken plains. If you set your horse grazing beside the govt. road it would be taken by Whitty’s drones and locked away in the pound. I have known of 60 horses impounded in one day all of then belonging to poor farmers…

 Almost by default, Kelly became the most wanted man in the State. A (small) decent piece of land and a few livestock was the want, a little illegal trading (his mother ran a shabeen). But an Irish Catholic family (a notch beneath the cattle) was a sitting duck for the local ‘traps’ and heavy-handed treatment; arrests for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time were common. And it wasn’t just Ned – father (when still alive), mother, brothers, aunts, uncles. A Kelly (or Quinn – his mother’s family) was guilty by association.

It’s a history full of incident and fulsome, rambunctious characters who defy a corrupt authority. Kelly and the gang take to the untamed rolling wilderness, camping out in miserable winter surrounds, avoiding the squads of police sent from Melbourne to trap the wanted men who have, by now, robbed banks and killed.

A (self) portrait of the man behind the myth, True History of the Kelly Gang remains a fiction but uses real people and based on historical fact. Yet it is a vivid recreation of the life of Australia’s most notorious outlaw/nationalist. Carey’s novel was awarded the 2001 Booker Prize yet, controversially, lost out to Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award.

 

 

‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

Atonement_(novel)A young girl’s imagination and a momentary lapse of judgement contribute to a momentous change of lives.

The hottest day of the summer of 1935 and, as Europe slips closer and closer to war, so Briony witnesses a series of events in the family home that, as a sheltered 13 year-old, she does not understand. By adding two and two to make five, she sets in motion a series of events that by the end of the day sees the unravelling of her privileged world and the arrest of young Robbie Turner, gardener and unofficially adopted member of the Tallis family.

Ian McEwan’s masterpiece is an enthralling yet devastating read as Turner, set for a medical career via study at Edinburgh University (paid for by Tallis senior) instead finds himself imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, is also a victim as she leaves home appalled by her family’s unquestioning acceptance of Robbie’s guilt.

Atonement is the story of a girl emotionally trapped between childhood and womanhood who spends her lifetime shamed by that one day’s interpretation of what she saw. Not allowed to question her certainty by adults once she has set the train of events in motion, it takes several years for Briony, with all the main characters long dead, to fully come to terms with her actions and achieve a degree of atonement.

As a child, Briony needed to be in control – “… she was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so.” She needs to stamp her version of events on the gathered adults, to be unquestioning in the telling of who and what she saw. Accusing Robbie in the way she does leads the reader to judge her and her interpretation. But she is still only a child: an innocent abroad in an adult world where events are beyond her full comprehension. It’s this world that takes over, allowing Briony no possible respite or real reflection – or to understand the repercussions.

But Atonement is also the story of love, country, class and war – the England of old where everyone and everything had its place. For some members of the family, Robbie was guilty by default and who was, according to the matriarch, no more than a ‘hobby’ of Mr Tallis. His fall from grace is pretty swift once accused – he may be incorporated into the family, but he’s still a low-born outsider. Emily Tallis had likely deduced a great deal more of the events of the tragic night but chose to remain silent, involving as it did the wealthy guest, Paul Marshall. Even Cecilia, without any evidence, places blame on the handyman’s son.

Parts two and three move the story into the early months of the war and, specifically for Robbie, having enlisted, the retreat across northern France to the Dunkirk beaches (in itself, part two is an extraordinary achievement). Cecilia, a nurse, has cut herself off from her family. Briony is following in her sister’s footsteps and is in training in London. It is only now Briony can recognise events for what they were – but the damage has been done.

There are more twists to the story – and the atonement at the end is unexpected. But it is, to my mind, the weakness of McEwan’s deeply moving novel. The desperate loneliness and separation of Robbie from Cecilia, the practicalities of his survival in spite of his injuries in France, the sadness and deep shame pervading everything Briony undertakes along with the ‘English country house’ part one which captures so much of privilege and carefree existence of a world about to radically change.

Atonement, regarded as McEwan’s best, was nominated for the 2001 Booker Prize but lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

 

 

 

Booker Prize Shortlist: 1996

Rohinton-Mistry-007It’s the first year where I have completed reading all novels shortlisted for the prestigious literary prize. The judges selected Graham Swift and Last Orders. Did they, in my opinion, make the right call?

Shortlist:

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Beryl Bainbridge, Every Man For Himself
Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark
Shena MacKay, The Orchard of Fire
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Graham Swift, Last Orders

 It was, by all accounts, an uncontroversial shortlist (for a change) with two Australians – Kate Jennings (Snake) and Gary Disher (The Sunken Road) – just missing out (these were the days before the shortlist was preceded by the longlist). And it was certainly something of a vintage year – heavyweights Atwood (her third appearance on the list in 10 years) and Bainbridge (her fourth); the poet and literary academic Seamus Deane; the eventual winner Graham Swift, regarded as the favourite to win and responsible for Waterlands, viewed by many as one of the finest English novels of the 1990s; winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Canadian Giller Prize, A Fine Balance was in the running with Shena McKay as the outsider.

You’ll see from my reviews below that I generally felt positive towards all five books although, surprisingly, the weakest was Beryl Bainbridge – a sparely written fairly short novel of a very familiar story – the sinking of the Titanic. And whilst it’s told from a different perspective (a young male first-class passenger), familiarity breeds a little too much contempt.

Two rites-of-passage offer very different perspectives of growing up – the everyday fears, terrors and misapprehensions of a young girl in 1950s rural England as opposed to a young catholic boy in Derry in Northern Ireland during the same time frame. Nothing could be more diametrically opposed!

Atwood’s book is based on a true story and the exploration of just how culpable Grace Marks was in the murder of her employer in a remote Canadian home in 1843. Fascinating but errs on longwinded.

That leaves Last Orders and A Fine Balance. And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully penned, deceptively simple story from Swift, I still feel that Rohinton Mistry’s book is one of the finest shortlisted not to have won the Booker. It may have been criticised for condensing all India’s ills of the time into the world of four connected characters, but it is this very humanity that makes A Fine Balance a very fine balance of a novel. So, as far as I am concerned, the judges in 1996 got it wrong. Mistry, Swift and Deane were my books of choice from the shortlist.