‘Cardiff, by the Sea’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Four deeply disturbing novellas rather than one single narrative, Cardiff, by the Sea is a strange hybrid of unsatisfying storylines underpinned by some beautiful, lyrically appealling prose.

Three of the stories are linked by a subject of displaced young women uncertain of the immediacy of the environment they find themselves in and threatened (real or imagined) by the people surrounding their inner sanctum.

A young academic studying in Pennsylvania learns of an inheritance from a woman of whom she has no prior knowledge. Adopted as a young child, she knows nothing of life before – but in travelling to Cardiff, Maine, she discovers a long abandoned house that is now hers. An unsettling narrative unfolds as Clare learns about her biological family – and the horrific incident that left her an orphan. The final story, The Surviving Child, also shares the theme of familicide with Stefan, spared when his brilliant but disturbed mother, a famous poet, killed his sister and herself. But its his young stepmother who takes centre stage of the narrative.

The least satisfying is Miao Dao in which a young girl, Mia, overcome by loneliness and pubescence, adopts a feral cat. Shy college girl in Phantonwise 1972, taken advantage of by not one but two academics highlights the predatory nature of men.

There’s more than a hint of Shirley Jackson in these novellas from Joyce Carol Oates as she explores women facing threats past and present. At their best, they are psychologically chilling packed with suspense – the titular storyline certainly the most successful as Clare meets her two surviving spinster aunts and threatening, silent uncle. But sadly, there’s little genuine engagement in any of the main characters in any of the four tales. The men are generally presented as domineering, manipulative, predatory, selfish trope – but the result is that it reflects badly on the female protagonists. The female student in Phantonwise 1972 comes across as weak and a victim.

‘Amnesty’ by Aravind Adiga

Danny (Dhananjaya Rajaratnam) is illegal. Having arrived in Australia from Sri Lanka on an education visa, he’s ducked out, gone underground and now hiding in plain sight in Sydney as a freelance cleaner. Life looks good with his regular clients paying him cash, he spends time with Sonja, his Vietnamese vegan girlfriend – and he’s even splashed out for blonde highlights. But, in the course of just 24 hours everything crashes around him when he recognises a murder victim as one of his clients.

Faced with a moral conundrum, Danny wrestles with inaction as he recalls time spent with Radha, the murder victim, and Prakash, her lover and ensconced in an apartment owned by her husband. Danny cleans both apartments. Both are gambling addicts and the two adopt Danny as a kind of non-participating companion on their Pokie-playing trips. But then Radha’s dead body is discovered – with Danny recognising the jacket in which the body is wrapped as belonging to Prakash. So now Danny must decide: come forward and risk being discovered as an illegal and deported – or keep quiet and risk Prakash getting away with it.

But even if the police believed you, and phoned [Prakash], he would guess at once you were the one who dobbed him in,
and in return, he would dob you in as an illegal. He would call the immigration dob-in number bout the Legendary Cleaner who was illegal, give his name, and what he looked like, and where he lived, because the dead woman had told him everything

Over the course of this single day, Danny’s routine is shot as he assesses and evaluates his life past, present and future: his dreams, his feelings for Sonja, the discombobulation of undocumented illegality of life in inner-suburban Sydney. But, most of all, he reflects on Radha and Prakash, whose very apartment is scheduled to be cleaned. As a non-resident does he, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, a person without rights, still have responsibilities? It’s this dilemma that provides the scaffolding of Aravind Adiga’s third novel.

The strength of Amnesty is not the storyline which evolves into melodrama with text messages from Prakash himself adding to Danny’s fears and confusion. What separates Adiga’s novel from the spate of contemporary inner-city Sydney angst novels is his explorations of legal and illegal immigration and the fundamentals of Australian racism in spite of its proud boast of cultural diversity and heritage.

Easiest thing in the world, becoming invisible to white people, who don’t see you anyway; but the hardest thing is becoming invisible to brown people, who will see you no matter whatan archipelago of illegals, each isolated from each other and kept weak, and fearful, by this isolation.

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

A hypnotic, claustrophobic sprawl of a novel as an elitist, morally ambivalent group of friends murder one of their own in a smalltown college in Vermont.

Escaping a poor, abusive Californian home life, Richard secures a scholarship to study languages in the formal, old-fashioned Vermont college, the go-to for discrete and wealthy New England families. Denied a place on the select Ancient Greek course taught by legendary professor, Julian Morrow, Richard becomes obsessed with the five students Morrow has allowed to grace his rooms. Advised to steer clear, the west coaster inveigles his way onto the course – and whilst able to hold hs own academically, he is way out of his depth in terms of worldly knowledge and wealth.

As the narrator, Richard reflects years later on the sequence of events. Ever the outsider, late to the party as the result of initially being refused entry to the course, the individual friendships and camaraderie already established, at times Richard felt isolated and excluded.

On many occasions he was not invited to time away. Instead, he found reluctant solace in campus parties. He yearns to be closer to his so-called friends. Trust fund kid with an intellect off the charts, Henry is the unofficial leader of the group – with Bunny (a young Boris Johnson anyone?) a rebellious disciple. Twins Charles and Camilla drink too much (come to think of it, they all do) and drugs certainly feature, but the gentle, demure Camilla wins everyone’s hearts. Finally, another trust fund boy, Francis, gay and in love with Henry (unreciprocated) but who physically dallies with the ostensibly straight Charles, has access to a large, rambling home nearby which is the setting of many events taking place within The Secret History. It’s after one such excluded weekend that Richard discovers they have killed a local farmer, a result of Bacchanalian alcohol and drug excess.

Loyal to a fault, Richard will say nothing. Not so Bunny (also not present at the fateful weekend) and there follows an intense period of fear by the group as Bunny extorts money, drugs, essay writing and more from his friends whilst indiscreet comments are dropped at any given opportunity in any company. The group decide they need to rid themselves of the uncertainty.

With more than a nod towards Rope, the play written by Patrick Hamilton and adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, The Secret History teeters between an arrogant, intellectual exercise proving their superiority of committing two perfect crimes (Phillip/Farley Granger in the film) and absolute fear (Brandon/John Dall). And ever present is the worshipped professor Morrow (James Stewart).

Tartt’s novel is a broad sweep of a tale as she not only explores both individual and group moral and ethical ambivalence, but also comments on 1960s privileged New England youth culture – alcohol, drugs, new freedoms. Through Richard, The Secret History takes on a more grounded, everyman student experience. It’s an engaging, immersive – if on occasions, at 600+ pages in need of some judicious editing – and enjoyable read.

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

Longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, After Story is a tale of family, healing and personal atonement as an indigenous mother and daughter travel together to the UK.

A recent law graduate, Jasmine has long moved away from her home and community. Hers is now a Sydney life with a small group of professional indigenous women as friends. The youngest daughter of three, twenty-five years earlier the disappearance of Jasmine’s older sister Brittany devastated their tight-knit community – and put both of her parents firmly in the media spotlight. When Jasmine finds herself with two places on an organised literary trip touring some of England’s most revered literary sites, inexplicably she decides to take Della with her. It’s the first time her mother has travelled overseas.

With the disappearance of Brittany, family life fell apart with the parents under suspicion. At less than three years old at the time, Jasmine barely remembers her sister. Her parents split up and, with Della drunk more often than sober, Jasmine was raised by Aunty Elaine. Not a blood relative, it was she who embodied the power of women and keepers of tradition as well as introducing Jasmine to reading of the English novels of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Relations between mother and daughter have long been strained but in travelling together, Jasmine hopes that time away from the everyday reminders will bring them closer together and help them reconcile the past. But just days into their trip, a young girl goes missing from Hampstead Heath and their personal memories come back to haunt them. As Jasmine immerses herself in the world of the Brontes and Jane Austen, making friends with members of the small travelling group, so Della disappears into her own memories and wisdom of her own culture and storytelling.

At its best, After Story is a powerful novel of mothers and daughters, of shared memories and experiences. But sadly, the narrative too frequently slips into academia as the pompous American professor of literature clashes with feminist thought in dismissing Virginia Woolf or Emily Bronte as secondary writers. Jasmine may love her books but Larissa Behrendt lives and breathes academic study and this is reflected in her writing. Too frequently, parts of After Story read like a short paper to be submitted for assessment.

‘Elizabeth Finch’ by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes falls, personally, into an ought to read category. The accessible and enjoyable The Sense of an Ending and Arthur and George are balanced by the oft tried but failed miserably Flaubert’s Parrot and once attempted (30 years ago) A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. The latter failures come frequently to mind when considering whether or not to read a Barnes novel. Sadly, to that list will now be added his latest, Elizabeth Finch.

Taught, precise language along with an endeavour to make sense of things past and present run through his novels – and Elizabeth Finch is no different. Except unlike The Sense of an Ending, Barnes has managed to make a short book feel like a long one.

It starts off well enough as our narrator, Neil, actor, twice divorced and father of three, was once a student in a Culture and Civilisation adult education class taught by Elizabeth Finch. He becomes consumed by her, admitting I probably paid more attention to what she said and how she spoke than I did to anyone else in my life. It’s not sexual adoration but something much more cerebral Her diction was formal, her sentence structure entirely grammatical,” Neil gushes. “You could almost hear the commas, semicolons and full stops. His championing of her is accepted among the small group of fellow students, even if thought a little odd.

Long after the course has finished, Neil remains in contact with Elizabeth Finch – the occasional dinner at the same restaurant three or four times a year. But her sudden death puts paid to that, only for him to discover he has been left Elizabeth’s journals in her will. Now, he feels, is the time to really understand the woman who shook my mind around, made me constantly rethink. A biography is in the making. But instead, he decides on the ultimate tribute, To please the dead – a biographical essay of her ancient hero: Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, who attempted to turn back the disastrous flood tide of Christianity.

And that, after 44 pages or so of Elizabeth Finch is where the interest moreorless stops. Barnes is at his cerebral best/worst. At first I thought Elizabeth Finch a Romantic pessimist; now I would call her a Romantic Stoic. Are the two conditions compatible? Really? What follows is a tedious history essay interspersed with the occasional tidbit of the unremarkable life of Elizabeth Finch. Sure, we know Barnes can write well – and mass consumption has never been his concern (Arthur and George possibly his closest to a populist novel). But this?

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts

A disquieting Sydney-set tale as the unnamed narrator spends her last year in the city dealing (or not) with her self-destructive obsessions against a backdrop of ecological crisis.

Two centuries earlier, British explorer John Oxley, her great-great-great-great grandfather, travelled into the centre of Australia convinced the unmapped area would reveal a vast, inland sea. He may never found it, but he never ceased to believe that it was out there. The unobtained and the unobtainable drove him ever onwards.

Our narrator also appears to be driven by the inexplicable and the elusive. She works part-time as an emergency dispatch operator and finds it difficult at times to distance herself from desperate calls of fires ravaging homes, threats of domestic violence. She drinks heavily and involves herself with excessive casual consensual sex. Adrift, she works the graveyard shift, wandering the threatening streets of the city late at night or in the early hours of the morning. And then there’s wannabe writer Lachlan, her ex who, a few days after she had an abortion, left her for Cate, a fellow student on their literature honours seminar. But they remain sexually attracted to each other. All this with bushfires surrounding the city raging out of control and other ecological disasters ever threatening.

Madeleine Watts debut novel attempts to take on more than she ultimately delivers as the mundane of inner-city living is interspersed with recollections of a younger self fleeing with her mother from an abusive father along with the occasional thought thrown to Oxley searching in vain for the elusive target. It all feels somewhat diluted, lacking in the frisson Watts’ subject demands. There are some great turns of restrained phrase and lyrical beauty – but the sum of its parts fail to live up to expectations. The result in a sufficiently engaging but hardly memorable first novel.

‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ by John le Carré

A modern classic and arguably John le Carré’s best, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy continues following the up and down career of George Smiley with the first in the trilogy featuring Karla, his Soviet counterpart.

le Carré’s expertise in the world of espionage creates a vivid insight into the machinations of the secret service, the at times painstakingly slow, chess-like moves that eventually (and hopefully) illicit responses and results. Smiley’s earlier fall from grace and enforced retirement owing to the death of Control and the ‘changing of the guard’ at the Circus would seemingly see the end of Smiley. But living up to the concept of the spy who came in from the cold, he is asked to return and help identify the mole within British intelligence. One thing is certain – whoever it is was planted by Moscow many years earlier and is a high ranking member of the service and a contemporary of Smiley.

With the young Peter Guillam assigned to support him, Smiley sifts and sorts, watches and questions, revisiting events that led to agent Jim Prideaux’s cover being blown just outside Prague that led to the revelation there was a mole at work.

It’s a very British scandal, riddled with complexities, rainy nights and old boy networks. What it’s not is a narrative of high volume confrontations and shoot outs. There’s a great deal at stake and the mole needs to be exposed and destroyed – but it can be done in a respectful, civilised way with plenty of tea poured and nervous conversations had about futures and the need to keep a lid on the level of exposure.

‘The Lady in the Lake’ by Raymond Chandler

To some critics, The Lady in the Lake, with it’s cleverly twisting plotlines and character development, is seen as Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece, a Philip Marlowe investigation into the disappearance of Crystal Kingsley, the vanishing wife of his latest client.

On being called to Kingsley’s office, Marlowe is hired to find Crystal. Kingsley claims to have received a telegram stating she was divorcing him and, heading off to Mexico, planned to marry the younger Chris Lavery. But on a follow-up, boy-around-town Lavery was found to be still in LA and had no idea where she was. Things become a little more complicated when Lavery is found dead – as is the neighbour, Muriel Chess, of the Kingsleys in their lakeside getaway home in nearby Bay City.

Expect lots of plot twists and whipsmart laconic Marlowe humour as the dots are joined in a case that’s more than simply a missing person. It’s a snappy, fast-paced narrative as the private detective inches his way closer to the truth – and not without upsetting a few important people along the way and being arrested himself for murder.

Chandler is something of an American crime noir icon but one downside for any Marlowe fiction is, irony among ironies, Humphrey Bogart. Although the legend only played Marlowe once on screen (The Big Sleep), he will be forever synonymous with the character. Try reading The Lady in the Lake without Bogart in your mind and without seeing everything in black and white – just how film noir should be seen!

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2022

Opinions inevitably vary when it comes to placing preferences for one item above another (the Oscars, anyone?). Certainly no difference here as, having read all the books on the 2022 Booker Prize shortlist, the personal burning question is – did the judges make the right call?

Shortlisted books first:
Glory – NoViolet Bulowayo
The Trees – Percival Everett
Treacle Walker – Alan Garner
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – Shehan Karunatilaka
Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
Oh William! – Elizabeth Strout

It’s a pretty consistent list although surprised that neither Young Mungo (Douglas Stuart, winner in 2020) nor To Paradise (Hanya Yanagihara) even made the longlist – and personally would have loved to see The Colony by Audrey Magee make the shortlist.

So what of the six – and did the judges make the right call in awarding the 2022 Booker Prize to Shehan Karunatilaka and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?

The last book on the list I read shores up the shortlist at the bottom of the pile. The final book of a trilogy, Oh William! is by far the weakest of the three as Elizabeth Strout continues to follow the narrative life story of Lucy Barton. It’s a pity as the first two made for great reading of a woman who came from nothing and Amgash, Illinois to become a successful writer.  Instead, whilst a tale eminently readable, Oh William! is not as commanding or engrossing as its predecessors. (60%)

At 87, Alan Garner became the oldest shortlisted author in the 60 years of the Booker Prize. An author from my childhood – the fantasies of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath rivalled the Narnia tales of C.S.Lewis as holiday and bedtime reading – Treacle Walker is a playful and luminous novella on the art of storytelling and a beautifully written, evocative fusion of a tale that is difficult to categorise. (62%)

Two down and four to go – and interestingly, to my mind there’s very little between them – but unlike the judges of the 2019 Booker Prize who presented a tie with Bernadine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) and Margaret Atwood (The Testaments), a decision is to be made. So, being aware that the four are interchangeable according to the day read – fourth on the list is the eventual winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida looks to explore and expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Described as part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire, it’s a crazy ride as the story looks to identify the killers of acclaimed war photographer and narrator of the book, Maali Almeida. It’s a frenetic novel that is incisive, frustrating, funny, confusing and was lauded by the judges for its ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. (70%)

Calm and reflective, Claire Keegan’s novella Small Things Like These is short in word count, morally visceral in impact. It places Ireland’s inhumane Magdalene Laundries under the microscope. Ostensibly a home for ‘fallen women’, the laundries in local Catholic convents were found throughout Ireland where the young women experienced everything from deprivation to abuse and death. Short and capacious, it is a deeply affecting debut novel. (71%)

Glory is the novel I thought would pick up the prize. A coruscating African Animal Farm, a commentary on global politics, a bitter yet, at times, incredibly and bitingly funny chorus against corrupt Zimbabwean politician Robert Mugabe, Glory is NoViolet Bulawayo’s follow up to her 2013 literary debut, We Need New Names. It’s an equally deeply political and social observation of life in Zimbabwe. But, in cloaking her world and her characters in the voices of animals, Bulawayo avoids potential tome-like overt political agitprop. Instead, she can call out and emphasise the absurdities of politics, both localised and global, and how the common people are impacted in an accessible energy of a novel. (72%)

But my preference falls on new-to-me American author, Percival Everett and The Trees. Everett has written more than 20 novels and was Pulitzer Prize shortlisted in 2020. But few of his books have made it outside the States. Comic masterpiece The Trees will change all that. A dark social satire that directly addresses racism past and present in a bold and shocking way, it also mixes in old-fashioned pulp fiction film noir storylines of murder. It’s a page-turning comic horror of a novel: it also topped the best of the 2022 Booker Prize list for me. (74%).

Yet although it was not my preferred choice, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, because of that ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques was arguably a good call to win the Booker in 2022. My jury is out on that one.

‘Oh William!’ by Elizabeth Strout

Part three of the trilogy – assuming author Elizabeth Strout decides to end the Lucy Barton narrative at this juncture – is, like its predecessors, deceptively simple in style and prose, and continues to explore the then and now of Lucy’s life. Only the now sees Lucy, a recent widow, spending unexpectedly more time with her first husband William – and consequently the then becomes about him and them.

An eminent storyteller, Strout weaves and wafts between time frames and characters as William discovers he has a half sister only a few years older than himself. It appears that when William’s mother walked off the Maine potato farm belonging to her first husband, she left behind a baby girl. He feels he needs to know more. With time on both their hands (William’s third, and much younger, wife has just left him), Lucy agrees to accompany her former husband to the small, rural town in Maine.

And that’s about it as far as a ‘story’ is concerned. But Strout does not need a structured beginning middle and end to her storytelling. Lucy Barton may remain as the central pivot but plot lines be darned – random moments of recall, distinctive memory of place and time, conversations partially remembered, vague recognitions all form part of Lucy’s armoury of life remembered.

But sadly, Oh William! does not reach the heights of its predecessors. There’s something laconic and uncertain as the two spend time together – either in Maine or New York, alone or in the company of their two daughters. The strengths of Lucy developed over the years, someone who came from nothing as we are frequently reminded, are somehow undermined as the relationship with the William of today appears to make Lucy appear somehow gullible – not the same character who left home in rural Amgash, Illinois to take up a place of study in Chicago. Add the level of condescension – oh William! this, oh William! that – prevalent throughout and the result is a tale eminently readable but not as commanding or engrossing as the earlier parts of the trilogy.

Nominated for the 2022 Booker Prize but lost out to Shehan Karunatilaka and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.