‘Mateship With Birds’ by Carrie Tiffany

mateshipSet in the 1950s and the regional Victorian town of Cahuna, Mateship With Birds invokes a subliminal level of pastoral and pastel as Carrie Tiffany explores family, sex and love along with the loneliness and monotony of rural life.

Betty Reynolds and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel, live on the edge of the dusty town with Harry, a dairy farmer, as their neighbour. Harry’s wife has left him for the president of the local bird-watcher’s club. That there is an attraction between the two adults there is no doubt. But both are reluctant or embarrassed to indicate this interest.

Constant errands, favours, meals and small gifts keep the family connected with Harry – and he evolves over the years into a surrogate father to the teenage Michael. It is his relationship with the boy that provides, finally, the book’s turning point.

Interwoven into the dusty, domestic narrative are the writings of Harry. A keen birdwatcher, he writes of a family of kookaburras that live on the farm – Mum, Dad, Tiny and Club-Toe.

It’s his poetic observations of the birds (and all families in general) that prove to be the interesting aspect of Mateship With Birds.

Mum. Dad, Club-Toe
break off their
preening,
squabbling,
loafing,
to attack.
They lose themselves in the doing.
I struggle to tell them apart.
Knife-beaked,
cruel-eyed,
vicious;
there is no question
they would die for the family
– that violence is a family act.

Without these observations, Tiffany’s book, whilst well written, lacked any emotion (even Harry’s notes to Michael about sex were strangely dry and ‘sexless’) – an episodic pastel palette of country life.

Shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, Carrie Tiffany lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

Advertisements

‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

shallowsWinton’s first Miles Franklin Award (with only his second novel) brings together the past and the present in its story of the Western Australian whaling town of Angelus – the fictitious coastal settlement that features in many of Winton’s subsequent novels.

The town, having seen better days, is the last remaining remnant of Australia’s whaling industry and, in 1978, present-day attitudes to the mass-slaughter gives rise to outside demonstrators descending in numbers. The threat to the livelihood of Angelus and the disruptions they cause both on land and out to sea are interwoven with stories of present day characters as the town plans for its 150-year anniversary.

It’s a narrative of loneliness and desperation, of ideology and commerce, of lost dreams and petty quarrels that have hung over Angelus for generations.

One local, Queenie Coupar, joins the anti-whaling group, the last member of a family that can trace its lineage back to the 1830s and the early, inhumane beginnings of its industry. Her stance leads to a separation from her husband Cleve, barely 18 months into their vows. It is their misery apart that is the core of Shallows as Queenie finds herself involved in more and more dangerous protests. Cleve, meanwhile, drowns his sorrows in cheap alcohol and reads the journals of Nathaniel Coupar, the first of the whaling family members.

It’s vividly written and sets a tone Winton constantly explores in his later books. Shallows may not be a classic, but, through strong characterisation and involving narrative, it’s still powerful stuff.

Shallows was awarded the 1984 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley

elmet-1A brutal debut, Fiona Mozley’s novel is as bleak as the legend of the Yorkshire countryside in which it is set.

Life on the margins as a young Daniel – our narrator – heads north in search of his sister, Cathy. His earlier, rural life with Daddy and elder sibling has come crashing down amid violence, anger and a terrible vengeance.

It’s a dark tale beautifully wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. The fiercely loyal trio eke out a living in a home built for them in the woods by Daddy apart from the village. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. They forage and hunt interspersed with periods of plenty. A huge, fierce man full of simmering anger, the father is a much-sought undefeated bare-knuckle prizefighter.

Elmet is fierce and biting, a family saga interspersed with periods of incredible violence. A semi-squatter on the land that is Elmet, they are inevitably drawn into the greed and corruption of the local landowners and landlord farmers. As outsiders, the family is ostracised and, to some extent, feared – imagined threats founded in nothing more than his physical presence. Cathy is like her father, driven by anger and a sense of justice and family loyalty; Daniel is like his (absent) mother. It is he who keeps house.

Lyrical and visual, Mozley’s prose beautifully captures the ‘badlands’ of the poetry of Ted Hughes’ Elmet (Yorkshire’s West Riding) and its ancient mythical legend. The narrative veers dangerously close to melodrama towards the end but nevertheless Elmet is a powerful debut novel.

Fiona Mozley was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize but lost out to American author George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

 

‘The Great Fire’ by Shirley Hazzard

hazzardMuch lauded on its release, Shirley Hazzard’s dull The Great Fire is set immediately post-World War II.

It is ostensibly the story of Aldred Leith, a physically scarred British war hero who is sent to Japan (Nagasaki in particular) to research the impact of defeat on local and traditional culture. But, having spent considerable time in China, he’s also there to witness (for the British government) a China that is about to fall into the hands of Mao, when archaic iniquity was about to be swept away by the new juggernaut of the doctrinaire.

Whilst in Japan, Leith meets 17 year-old Helen, daughter of the crass and abrasive (Australian) camp commander and sister to Benedict, a youth dying from Friedreich’s ataxia. The three become close and, in spite of social barriers, Helen and Leith, 15 years her senior, fall in love.

Literary to the point of soporific, Hazzard’s writing is grave, old-fashioned and overly pretentious – Before dawn, as he slept, there had gushed out this emanation of an extreme (seppuku or Japanese ritual suicide). There is also the problem of the lack of any obvious storyline until the halfway point in the book. Up until then, The Great Fire is a series of vignettes as Leith travels backwards and forwards between Japan, China and Hong Kong. But colonialist through and through, The Great Fire introduces not local characters and experiences. Instead, the main talking point seems to be the standard of food served up at Government House in Hong Kong.

Twenty years in the writing, published in 2004, the pompous novel is littered with Aldreds, Bertrams, Benedicts with its language and sensibilities firmly entrenched in British mores of the 1940s. Hazzard herself was born in Sydney in 1931 into a diplomatic family and essentially left Australia by the time she was 16. Yet The Great Fire was awarded the 2004 Miles Franklin Award.

 

‘The Comfort of Strangers’ by Ian McEwan

comfortSpare, detached prose adds to the tension in McEwan’s enigmatic narrative. The question remains – just why did Colin and Mary return to the apartment they knew was fraught with danger?

In the unnamed Venice, the beautiful couple holiday. But this is no carefree period of desperate sightseeing and gastronomic pleasures.

For the two, together for seven years, it is an insular experience: sleeping late, talking, arguing, making love, spending only short periods away from the security of the hotel room. It is on one such occasion, leaving the hotel late, lost in the myriad of the city’s side streets, discovering restaurants closed, that they stumble across the charismatic Robert. It is a meeting that alters their futures and their destinies.

From the outset, there is a sense of foreboding. Colin and Mary knew each other as much as themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of personal concern. They appear bored. And along comes Robert. No matter how threatening, no matter how much they do not want to see him (and, later, his overtly submissive wife, Caroline), opposites somehow attract. Mary and Colin are hooked and are drawn into his power and obsessions.

The Comfort of Strangers is a beautifully written (second) novel. But it is also a disturbing and chilling one. Sensibly, it is short (120 pages), stripped of description, emotive in unnerving suggestion.

Shortlisted for the 1981 Booker Prize, it lost out to Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children.

 

‘The Map of Love’ by Ahdaf Soueif

map of loveAs with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1975 Booker Prize winning Heat and Dust, Ahdaf Soueif’s sweeping The Map of Love is a love story, a love story of place and time and two women separated by almost a century. Only this is the story of Egypt rather than India – and Soueif (unlike Jhabvala) is eviscerating in her criticism of early twentieth century British foreign policy – and the illegal ‘Veiled Protectorate’ of Egypt in particular.

Isabel arrives in Cairo from New York with a large antique trunk stuffed with journals, letters, newspaper cuttings, photographs – mementos of a grandmother she never knew. The young widowed Lady Anna Winterbourne arrived in Egypt in 1900 – and left eleven years later, widowed for the second time. In the interim, having dared marry a local, a politicised lawyer and landowner, Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi and bore him a daughter, she had been shunned by the English ruling classes.

It is Anna’s story that unfolds in an eloquent novel of subtlety, honesty and history, simultaneously exploring a more contemporary Egypt as Isabel looks into her grandmother’s narrative. The American has discovered cousins in Cairo – and Amal in particular – she never knew existed.

As the millennium approaches, it is a secular Amal who represents Egyptian society, a country fearful of religious fundamentalists and acts of terror against foreign tourists. It is the lonely Amal who becomes obsessed with the story of her great-aunt as she reads through the detailed journals and reads of her grandmother (Sharif’s sister, Layla – Anna’s dearest friend) and her father’s childhood.

Against a background of independence, imperialism and social injustices, The Map of Love mixes the personal and political to great affect – even if it occasionally slips into political grandstanding. It’s a grand sweep of a particular time in history – of western European countries carving up the globe for their own colonial advancement and the inevitable independence movements that quickly follow. But it’s also a story of social change and, ultimately, a love story – with the main character Egypt itself.

The Map of Love was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize but lost out to JM Coetzee and Disgrace.

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

secret scriptureA lyrical account of centenarian Roseanne McNulty’s life in rural Ireland, The Secret Scripture is both compelling and enlightening.

Long time resident of Roscommon mental hospital, Roseanne’s testimony of life prior to incarceration is interweaved with that of psychiatrist, Dr Grene. The old, decrepit Victorian hospital is soon to be demolished. With fewer available beds in the new building, Grene is to determine which patients can be released into the community.

Grene is particularly intrigued by Roseanne’s case. Like many of the older patients under his care, the origins of her confinement are questionable, not helped by records having been destroyed by fire twenty years earlier. Sensitive to the known facts contained within remaining official reports (infanticide, nymphomania (!), adultery) and her age, Grene treads lightly with his questioning. But, unknown to the doctor, she is secretly writing her own recollections.

Ireland’s malignant history is ever present in Barry’s writing – and The Secret Scripture is no different. The young Roseanne was a great beauty but as a Presbyterian living in Catholic Ireland in the 1920s, she was confronted with militant Irish nationalism and sectarianism, incurable enmities and the loss of innocence and joy. Even her marriage to Tom McNulty was short-lived and tragic, a victim of the power of the Irish Catholic Church. Father Gaunt (later Bishop) is a symbol of the perversion and bigotry of the church at that time over the lives and the moral judgements of its flock. Morality has its own civil wars, with its own victims in their own time and place.

It’s a heart-rending story, a work of fiction exploring memory and its effect on history and truth. Barry himself throws in the question of just how much of Roseanne’s narrative is truthful. No one has the monopoly on truth… Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought. And her recollections certainly vary from those official reports. But truth (at least in part) is Grene’s responsibility: or at least a different version. The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing.

 And Grene certainly reveals an unexpected new truth at the end of The Secret Scripture.

 It’s lucid and slow-paced, even though Roseanne’s story is livid and urgent. Barry’s descriptive prose is poetic yet accessible, his commentary on this period of Irish history vivid but humane. The Secret Scripture was Sebastian Barry’s second Booker Prize shortlisting (A Long Long Way was the first in 2004), but it lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.

 

‘The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins

keepers of truthA real page-turner, author Michael Collins combines a 1980s-set murder mystery along with a social commentary on the demise of small-town America as its life-blood, the manufacturing industries, close.

A fascinating hybrid that is both requiem and dissection, The Keepers of Truth is a grimly prophetic story of universal change and the death of the known and the secure. Rusting fire escapes lead to stairways to oblivion and darkness. There are prehistoric-looking machines dragged out into yards, cannibalised of anything of worth, carcasses of industrialism.

Bill, son of a former industrialist who committed suicide rather than witness the closure of his factories in the town, is an aspiring journalist reduced to writing editorial about charity bake-offs and college sports. What he really wants to headline in the slowly dying newspaper, The Daily Truth, is his philosophies on the (unnamed Midwest) town that was once the keepers of industrialism, but which is now a town of trainee managers. Oh happy are ye that inherit the deep-fat fryer! What we do now is eat. It has become our sole occupation… a sublimated longing for our dead machines.

The report that Old Man Lawton is missing changes all that. Locals (including the local police) immediately blame the son, Ronny. But whilst there’s motive, there’s not enough evidence. Bill, with his ageing colleagues, editor Sam and photographer Ed, in their hunt for the truth, become more and more embroiled in the bizarre investigation of few clues.

It’s a trailer-trash hunt of incest, abuse, alcoholism, suicide, emotional breakdowns and paranoia. But it’s also a time-crawling hunt during the intense July heat and drought, a physical boredom of intense severity that threatens the return of bake-off lead stories and the newspapermen surviving on whisky and tuna melts (Sam’s speciality).

The Keepers of Truth is a deeply relevant and pertinent social commentary and a morbidly dark comedy (think Coen Brothers or Collins’ countryman, Martin McDonagh). It’s the American dream turned sour told in long, cadenced sentences that create a rhythmic reading that add to that sense of slightly breathless reading.

It’s a real tour de force.

Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, The Keepers of Truth lost out to Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin.

‘Sour Sweet’ by Timothy Mo

soursweetPersonal ambitions within migrant Chinese communities in 1960s London and clashes between cultures result in a beautifully modulated story of business, loyalties, expectations, tradition and, ultimately, family.

But Sour Sweet is no deep socio-political commentary on similarities and differences between Anglo and migrant Chinese communities. Instead, it’s a deft, occasionally funny, affectionate family story of the Chens, a young couple only recently arrived in north London. He is passive and works long hours as a waiter in Chinatown: it is the spunky Lily who is the driving force of the family, particularly with the arrival of a son (Man Kee) quickly followed by her sister (Mui) from Hong Kong.

As the Chens settle into London, with Lily determined to make a success of the family’s new life, so a power struggle is taking place among the Triads who control the illegal gambling and drug distribution in Chinatown. The two worlds collide when Chen, due to family obligations and expectations back in China, is forced to borrow money. His mistake is that he fails to tell his wife.

Yet Mo choses to predominantly focus on the unknowing Lily and her sister Mui – and Sour Sweet is the more charming for it. The two women save enough money from the housekeeping to open a small takeaway business somewhere in South London: Lily is the more savvy of the two but Mui has an aptitude for figures. Somehow they make it work with Chen happy to almost disappear behind the hatch in the kitchen.

What works less in Mo’s enjoyable novel is the parallel time spent with the Triads. Whilst Mo paints key characters with similar sympathetic traits, the detailed violence between rival gangs and the internecine struggles within the Hungs is sometimes too much. The sour of Sour Sweet comes too much to the forefront.

But Timothy Mo’s second novel is nevertheless something of a little gem. Shortlisted for the 1982 Booker Prize, it lost out to Thomas Keneally and Schindler’s Ark.

‘My Brother Jack’ by George Johnston

Mybrotherjack_1A vivid and sincere telling of what is a semi-autobiographical novel (the first in a series of three), My Brother Jack talks of life in Melbourne between the First and Second World Wars. Chronicling the story of bookish, nerdy (in contemporary parlance) David Meredith and his older brother, Jack, My Brother Jack is a commentary on interwar Australian society and dull, mundane suburban existence.

A violent father, a sapper in the First World War deeply affected psychologically by his experiences, and a mother who became something of a hero in the same war as nurse and matron: both returned to the anticlimactic lifestyle of a too-crowded, rundown weatherboard home behind a picket fence in Melbourne. Jack, three years older than David, is a lad-about-town larrikin, supportive but disappointed in his younger brother.

Mundane life with a potential mundane future as, established by an unimaginative, brutish father, David is signed up for a seven-year apprenticeship in the printing industry. Yet he falls in with the Bohemian 1920s crowd and a new life unfolds. Over time, David becomes a successful journalist and war correspondent.

A seminal novel of mid-twentieth century Australian life, My Brother Jack is a candid portrayal of changing values and the vacuous suburban dream of the time. Although rarely present in the physical sense (particularly in the second half of the novel), it is Jack who is the marker for Johnston’s reflections.

It’s an allegory of old-style versus new – Jack is the true Okker, physically strong with a word and smile for anyone and everyone: it is he who tries to smooth over ruffled feathers, sees the positive in everything, even if his injury at boot-camp keeps him from seeing any action at the onset of World War II. Three kids (the third, much to Jack’s relief, is the boy he so desperately wanted) and a happy, faithful marriage: Jack is presented as optimism personified (although inevitably always disappointed).

David, meanwhile, marries ‘well’ and the social climbing, steered by the stylish and beautiful Helen, begins immediately – a perfectly manicured home in an anodyne new suburb along with carefully selected friends. It’s ultimately not the world for David – and his petty cruelty and rejection of his wife’s values and interests are honestly (if unpleasantly) portrayed.

Stylistically, the novel reflects the semi-autobiographical, journalistic background of the writer – along with the time it was written (1964). Straightforward prose, prone occasionally to err on overly long descriptive tedium, Johnston sets out to tell his story. And he does it well, painting a vivid picture of life behind the closed doors of the family weatherboard or the sterile dinner parties that accompany married life.

A little editing would have helped (occasionally there’s too much detail!) although, ironically, Johnston speeds through his time as a war correspondent and his travels across the world. But that’s the point. My Brother Jack is the travails of living and surviving in Australia in those post war years. It is the sequel – Clean Straw For Nothing – that Johnston explores life as an expatriate.

My Brother Jack was awarded the Miles Franklin Award in 1964 (as was the sequel five years later).