‘The Garden Book’ by Brian Castro

The-Garden-Book_Brian-Castro-510x799Literary and obscurely poetic, Brian Castro’s meditation on loneliness, addiction, abuse and racism is a perverse and unappealing narrative.

Broken into four sections with events seen from the perspective of four people, The Garden Book is the story of poet Shuang He (Swan Hay) and her sad, isolated life in the shadows of the Dandenong Hills on the outskirts of Melbourne between the wars.

Darcy Damon (section one), her husband, is a good-looking opium addict: Swan Hay herself is a third generation Chinese-Australian and university graduate: Jasper Zhalin (section three) an American architect/pilot and lover of Swan: and finally Shih, their son, looking back at events and attempting to piece together the story some 50 years later.

It’s a frustrating read. Castro has created several captivating characters, allowing him to touch upon fascinating themes that are as relevant today as they were then. The often hidden history of the Chinese in Australia and the racism simmering below the surface of everyday life is exposed – not just towards Swan and her father, but also her Jewish friend, Ruth Black. But Castro’s language, whilst rich and archly beautiful, is impenetrable and exacting in its telling of a narrative.

A progressively angry and violent Damon, former chauffeur to the notorious local gangster, Squizzy Taylor, becomes increasingly remote as he builds a large house to cater for the burgeoning tourism of the local area. Swan, writing poetry on gum leaves, slips between sanity, depression and addiction (opium and/or alcohol), made worse by the cot death of their daughter. As war inches closer and Damon spends more and more time absent from the property as a reservist, into the narrative walks Jasper Zenlin. Charming, wealthy and sophisticated, he loves Swan and her poetry, eventually having the work published by an obscure printing house in Paris on the eve of the war. Swan is a sensation – but never knows it until post-war.

Victim of malicious gossip and accusations, Swan lives intensely and painfully in her mordant solitude. She loses all – Damon, her father, Jasper, her children, even, ultimately, herself.

As a précis, with more verve and action (plane crashes, opium-fuelled orgies, bigamy, spies), The Garden Book sounds like a regular literary thriller. But it falls into an academic exercise, an emotionless gymkhana of poetic verbosity. By the end, I hated it.

The Garden Book was shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Roger McDonald and The Ballad of Desmond Kale.

 

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‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton

cloudstreetAn iconic modern Australian classic, Cloudstreet is a sweeping saga of twenty years in the lives of two neighbouring families living in Perth, Western Australia from post World War II until the late 1960s. It’s a broadchurch narrative of the large, boisterous Lamb family and their landlord neighbours, the uptight Pickles.

Down on his luck, losing four fingers in a foolish accident and a love of spending as much of his money as he can at the racetrack, Sam Pickles and family (Dolly, an unfaithful wife, and three kids) unexpectedly inherit a house plus a lump sum of cash. The house is enormous for their needs – the emptiness highlighted by the prompt loss of the cash at the local bookies. Unable to sell the house for 20 years (a wise provision in the will of a now deceased cousin), the Pickles build a makeshift division inside and out – and rent one half to the almost destitute Lamb family. Two dysfunctional families come together under one roof.

So begins this rollicking sprawl of a novel as the two families collide, bickering, judging, ignoring, laughing, mourning, crying, fighting a way through their everyday lives.

It’s the Lambs who look to make the most of their opportunities – a distinct work ethic overseen by Ma (Sergeant-Major) Lamb that sees the front room converted into a (successful) shop serving the neighbourhood, children (mostly) married off and the eldest son, Quick, finally coming good after a mid-novel waywardness. It’s a boisterous, energetic household with much laughter, hard work and some sadness (their son, Fish, a handsome, once-popular larrikin, is brain-damaged due to a fishing accident witnessed early in the narrative).

All is very different next door. A wayward Sam; an unimpressed Dolly who steadfastly ignores her neighbours; a bookish Rose who takes on the household duties as her mother spends more and more time at the local boozer (the two boys rarely feature). Unlike the religious, hardworking Lambs, the Pickles look to luck (lady luck provided the house, after all) and a minimum of graft to get by.

Full of heart, Tim Winton’s ambitious novel may pall towards the end, but in the interim we witness two families coming together during a period of comfortable, conservative Australian history. Global events (Bay of Pigs, Korean war, assassination of John F Kennedy) have little impact on the daily lives: Australian economic and social policies mentioned only in passing. Only the Nedlands Monster – a Perth serial killer who terrorised the city over a four-year period in the early 60s – is given any significant scope of the outside world. Instead, Cloudstreet is a celebration of community and is the story of the everyday – domesticity, the struggle for survival, births, marriages, deaths – and the dogged endurance of both families. It’s an honest portrayal, full of humour and fulsome characters but devoid of overt sentimentality or melodrama.

Constantly seen as the most important Australian novel ever written (by critics and readers’ polls alike), Cloudstreet was the recipient of the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Of a Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett

Of_A_Boy_(Sonya_Hartnett)_CoverA short, seemingly meandering story, Sonya Hartnett leaves you wondering just where the narrative is taking you. And when it gets there, you wish it hadn’t!

Evocative of youth and innocence with more than a hint of vulnerability, Of a Boy steers clear of overt sentiment in its telling of childhood and mother/child relationships – and that of nine year-old Adrian in particular. A boy on the sidelines – living with his Gran in a street where there’s no other kids, one particular friend at school. Lonely he may be, but Adrian is a survivor, having experienced the emotional deterioration of his mother following a divorce.

As Adrian befriends Nicole, the new girl across the road, the story of three missing children (the prologue of Of a Boy and likely based on the true story of the missing Beaumont children, who disappeared from an Adelaide beach) gradually moves off the front pages of the newspapers. And whilst children may not understand, they do not so readily forget.

Sparse language, evocative setting (the innocence of 1977 where the purchase of a slinky could create so much interest and joy) and a mood of cold, damp winter months with morning mists and the early onset of nighttime darkness add to the sense of foreboding of Hartnett’s haunting and deeply moving novel.

Of a Boy was the recipient of The Age Book of the Year as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for South East Asia and South Pacific Region but lost out to Alex Miller and Journey to the Stone Country for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash

flounderingA convincing, tough, unsentimental yet moving storyline more than smacks of truth as brothers Tom and Jordy come to terms with an unstable, broken mum who, having abandoned them on the doorstep of their gran twelve months earlier, has turned up again. Without a word, she whisks them off on a road trip the boys will never forget.

Loretta seemingly has no plan – and very little money – other than to head west. Days of sleeping in an old rust bucket of a car with the boys still in their school uniforms and surviving predominantly on chocolate and soda shoplifted along the way follow.

Eleven year-old Tom is our narrator, a boy who sees a lot but understands little. Loretta is slowly falling apart, fragments of a desperate woman experienced on the periphery of Tom’s vision. When the three find shelter in an old caravan park on the west coast, the sense of menace is just out of view as the slightly older, surly Jordy attempts to protect his brother.

Floundering is a grim, anxiety-ridden experience. Yet its vivid language and powerful sense of character, presented by the author without any judgement, drags us into the  squalor of the road trip and the inhospitable dereliction of the coastal campsite. As Tom says of his brother when they realise they have been abandoned once more, “there’s a little piece of string connecting us, and I got no choice but to go with the pull of it.” And that describes the effect Romy Ash’s debut novel has on its readers. And I, for one, am glad to have done so.

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

‘Bring Larks and Heroes’ by Thomas Keneally

larksLaying bare the horrors of the Australian convict era, Keneally’s Miles Franklin Award winning Bring Larks and Heroes was one of the earliest fictions exploring the period. Seen from the witty, irreverent perspective of Corporal Phelim Halloran, the Irish Marine, the fictional penal colony in the South Pacific is a mirror of the settlement of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) with key dates shuffled to be suitably non-specific.

A man destined originally to be of the (Catholic) cloth, Halloran instead joined the Marines to avoid his fate as an Irish nationalist arrested at an illegal gathering. Intelligent and idealist, it is Halloran’s love for the young serving girl, Anne, that drives him to take risks. But it is also his witnessing the inhumanity of the so-called civilising society, where dissent is crushed (400 lashes), simply ended (the hanging of an accused rapist in spite of the man being a eunuch) or, in the case of the indigenous population, simply left to die from smallpox. The worst excesses of English society and an unjust system have been transported thousands of miles to the other side of the world.

It is the injustices that ultimately lead to the eventual downfall of the honest Halloran (and Anne) and his conscience as he is called to task by Hearn, the clerk and political prisoner who has come about a tract reporting the French Revolution (Keneally has altered dates, remember). Choose your side, demands Hearn, knowing where the young Catholic Irishman’s sympathies lie.

Bring Larks and Heroes is an early work by one of Australia’s foremost novelistsHimself an outspoken Australian Republican and former seminarian, Keneally explores the individual’s commitment to faith and personal morality without being overly doctrinaire. But his style is slight and erring towards obscure; language overbearing; narrative non-compelling.

It’s a subject Keneally was to revisit in the 1987 novel, The Playmaker – to my mind a much more successful and significant narrative and which was later adapted for the stage by playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, as Our Country’s Good for the Royal Court Theatre in London. Bring Larks and Heroes was awarded the 1967 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Sorry’ by Gail Jones

sorryAn elegant, elegiac tale of childhood, memory, friendship and love, Jones’ deft narrative and luminous prose creates a compelling and compassionate story.

Sorry is set in the remote town of Broome in northern Western Australia in the late 1930s/early 1940s and the onset of war. A young English anthropologist and his wife, Stella, struggle with the harsh conditions of their new surrounds, living in little more than a shack several miles from town. Their lonely daughter, Perdita, makes friends with a deaf mute boy, Billy, and an Aboriginal girl, Mary. The trio develop a deep and profound bond until tragedy strikes. Their lives are torn apart and, coinciding with Japanese bombardment of the northern Australian coastline, are forced, for different reasons, to travel south to Perth.

Written in a mix of first and third person, Sorry is essentially a memory of an older Perdita looking back on events, the fractured chronology providing a level of objectivity and evaluation for the adult Perdita.

Deeply traumatised by events, dealing with a profound stutter and an unstable, Shakespeare quoting mother, Perdita is an isolated and bullied teenager. It is only with foster parents, Flora and Ted Ramsay, that she is introduced to stability and a sense of normality. But, in reconnecting with Mary and Billy in Perth, Perdita’s perception of ‘normal’ is at odds with the White European values of 1940s Australia.

The word ‘sorry’ has complicated meanings in Australia insofar that it took an Australian government until 2008 to apologise to the Stolen Generations and formally acknowledge the suffering caused by decades of mistreatment of Indigenous Australians. Gail Jones’ Sorry is a personal testament in the spirit of reconciliation, a novel of sacrifice and loyalty, of childhood and innocence with its hopes, its aspirations and, devastatingly, its lost opportunities.

And only then, turning the pages, peering at what Mary had read, did she begin to know, did she begin to open and grieve. There was a flood of hot tears, and a sudden heart breaking.

 I should have said sorry to my sister, Mary. Sorry, my sister, oh my sister, sorry.

Gail Jones’ fourth novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award (her third time on the shortlist in four years) but lost out to Steven Carroll and The Time We
Have Taken
.

‘Their Brilliant Careers’ by Ryan O’Neill

their_brilliant_careersA bravura hotchpotch of the lives of 16 (fictional) Australian writers from inveterate racist through to manipulating blackmailer, from overbearing bully to a fiction within her own fiction, Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers is a satirical swipe at the literary establishment.

Sixteen people, sixteen stories, sixteen histories. Ranging over approximately one hundred years, inevitably there are numerous overlaps – the biographer of one, the child of another, the editor of many.

Satire abounds in the short biographies (an average of 15-20 pages per person) and Their Brilliant Careers builds towards a crescendo as it looks to its last exposé. The construct of O’Neill’s Australian literary world is a wholly believable one. It’s detailed and intricate, with each writer provided with a distinctive idiosyncrasy. Absurd but rarely dull, ironic without being monotonous, O’Neill instils a sense of a fun, light read. It’s a commanding insight into that literary world. That’s the positive side of Their Brilliant Careers.

But it also becomes a little too formulaic, a little too much misery with early deaths in miserable circumstances. Satire becomes spoof – and not always successfully, slipping into the very self-aggrandisement it’s mirroring and commenting upon. The result is that the joke wears thin.

At its best, Their Brilliant Careers is certainly entertaining (personal favourites were the lives of editor, Robert Bush, whose favourite copyediting symbol was ‘delete’ and used only purple ink; the reclusive, forgotten Helen Harkaway) but Their Brilliant Careers cried out for more than its lightweight content. Pastiche can carry only so much. A slightly longer, ‘ordinary’ story of a writer/historian/publisher would have provided the balance.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, Ryan O’Neill lost out to Josephine Wilson and her Extractions.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.