‘The Mountain’ by Drusilla Modjeska

image24-1There’s a great deal to admire in Drusilla Modjeska’s ambitious, sweeping, multilayered novel that takes us into the heart of colonial change as the fractured island of Papua New Guinea moves towards independence from Australia in the 1970s.

Centred round academia and the new university in Port Moresby, the island’s capital, The Mountain introduces an Australian ex-pat community along with their Papuan contemporaries. It’s a country on the cusp of change but still dictated to by tradition, both colonial and tribal. Into this world arrive Rika and her anthropology documentary film-maker husband, Lawrence.

Several years his wife’s senior, Lawrence resists the idea that anthropology is about simply observing as if under a microscope: change and external influence has validity. He travels to the (fictional) remote mountain and local villages to film, leaving Rika in town to acclimatise to a world very different to her Dutch background.

While Lawrence records and experiences clan relations and rituals, art and ancestor stories and the influences of western teachings and medicines, so Rika herself confronts her own changes and conflicts, falling for Aaron, the young and charismatic local academic and future leader. Friends and colleagues are not overly fazed by this development, but the rarefied air of academia is not representative of colonial society. Some Papuans are disapproving: members of the white community turn to violence.

With one foot in Moresby and one on the mountain, Modjeska’s novel is very much about place and time. Rika’s coming-of-age runs simultaneously with PNG’s introduction to democracy and the position of tribal practices of tradition and superstition in this new world: her exposure to life on the mountain when she eventually joins Lawrence further changes Rika.

The second (and considerably shorter) part of The Mountain is set 30 years later: Rika is a successful artist living in New York while Aaron is long dead. It is Jericho, Rika and Aaron’s adopted son, who returns. A successful art dealer in London, Jericho is mixed race and feels he belongs nowhere. He needs to understand his sense of place – but also needs closure with details about Aaron’s death so soon after Independence.

It’s a dense, luminous work of fiction. Modjeska is a celebrated non-fiction writer and The Mountain is at its brilliant best when it navigates that sense of place and the realities of that world – the politics, its history, its traditions. The complexities of PNG are palpable, particularly in the first half of the book as we journey with Rika and, to her, the newness of the island and its culture.

Less successful, less engaging, are the individual stories and narratives. Jericho arrives too late to hold the sympathies and empathies: his personal journey of identity in part mirrors Riva’s arrival in PNG. But it is too obvious where his questions will be answered – he is, at the end of the day, a mountain man. And his long-held love for Bili, daughter of Riva’s close friend Laedi, is all too neatly wrapped in her activism for PNG’s right to self-determine.

The Mountain is, throughout, full of convenient love affairs, analogies for events – the disintegrating marriage between Laedi and Don; the rocky marriage of Pete and Martha (that at least survives until his death in Sydney many years later); Wana and Sam; the unexpected Lawrence and Janape. And, central, Rika and Aaron.

Through them and their friendships, we gain an insight into the local cultural mix: through them and their children, we experience, when Jericho returns to the island, how independence has impacted and how tradition has withstood the test of time.

It’s a long journey for all concerned – Lawrence and Jericho return from the UK, Martha from Sydney. A bitter Riva will never travel from New York to the island. It’s 30 years since Papua New Guinea gained independence: it’s 30 years since Aaron died. It’s also a long, overly detailed journey for the reader – particularly in the middle where the newness of discovery has worn off.

Drusilla Modjeska’s first book of fiction was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin award but lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

 

 

 

‘Bliss’ by Peter Carey

blissAn acerbic commentary on family, consumerism, advertising and bourgeois avarice, Carey’s debut novel was presented with the 1981 Miles Franklin Award.

As Harry Joy hovers above his prone body in the opening pages, dead for nine minutes before being revived, he looks around his wealthy suburban home of a successful Australian east coast advertising executive. At just 39 years old, he has suffered a massive coronary.

But Harry wakens in the hospital convinced he has died and in Hell, this new world populated by actors playing roles. His beautiful wife Bettina is unfaithful and in the process of leaving Harry for his trusted business partner, Joel. And his teenage children are not the innocents he believes them to be – son Harry a drug dealer dreaming of working for the Colombian cartel; daughter Lucy more than prepared to bestow sexual favours on her brother in return for a hit.

Life at 25 Palm Avenue has definitely changed. Having met with Honey Barbara – part-time dope grower, part-time hooker – and her hippy, pantheistic outlook, Harry is quick to divest clients who do not meet his newly acquired ethical standards. As Harry’s suspicions and paranoia grow, his determination to become a Good Person grows.

The family conspire to have him committed. Not that that’s particularly difficult – along with his convictions and financial suicide, the local mental home is a privatised business and any patient, sane or otherwise, means subsidy dollars for Dr Alice Dalton.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to Bliss. In this unspecified tropical, humid rainforest (likely to be Queensland), everything and everyone is a little strange and more than a little odd.

Harry doesn’t stay in the hospital for very long. Money gets him in, money gets him out. And Honey Barbara is now part of his life in Palm Avenue, in spite of her hatred for all things poisonous (living in a commune in the middle of nowhere, everything about city life is poisonous). But nothing is easily settled in the Joy family –  Joel now lives in the Palm Avenue home, even if Bettina no longer feels any love for him.

Bliss is all a little crazy and anarchic, with pauses to the flow of narrative every few pages that creates a staccato reading. This structure does at times make it difficult to ‘get into’ the swing of the novel, added to which Carey is not adverse to occasionally fast-forwarding 20 years to inform us of the conclusion of a particular event or story. But Carey’s prose is beautifully descriptive and accessible – and the black, black humour is, mostly, captivating.

It’s not my favourite Carey novel – it digresses at times, annoys at others – but there is no doubting its deep humanity and love of its subject and subjects.

 

‘Too Many Men’ by Lily Brett

41h8gacb38l-_sy346_Take every conceivable neurotic stereotype of a 40 year-old Jewish woman, multiply it by five and put it into one individual character. Meet Ruth Rothwax, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. She is obsessed in visiting Poland with her 81 year-old father, Edek, to discover, through his eyes, the country of his (and her deceased mother’s) birth and to try and understand the devastating loss of family and position in the Holocaust.

Ruth is a relatively successful New York businesswoman three times divorced (but one, according to Ruth, does not officially count as the first was a business transaction to enable the Australian obtain a green card to live in the US). Edek lives in Melbourne, the city he and his wife, Rooshka, settled following World War II.

The two meet in Warsaw for a journey through Polish Jewish history – the Warsaw Ghetto, the city of Lodz (her parents’ home city) and Krakow (for the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau from which her parents miraculously survived). It is the first time Edek has been in Poland since the war.

Too Many Men is the fictional story of this journey, a confronting journey for both protagonists as they deal, in their own personal way, with the history of events in the context of the anti-Semitism prevalent in Poland today. Edek is the more sanguine of the two – he is a survivor who will never forget but who knows he cannot change anything that happened. Ruth as a second-generation survivor has not witnessed but learned everything second hand through silences, questions that could never be asked or screams deep in the darkness of night. By confronting her parents past, Ruth can confront her own future.

It’s a long journey. Lily Brett is not an author who uses one word when twenty seems better. It’s also a soapbox from which she can educate and then berate the world. Not only is Ruth a stereotype, but so is every Pole, guilty of anti-Semitism before they have even spoken a word.

Painfully and in detail, events in the Ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow are spelled out. Contemporary Poland and its attitudes are equally presented – Auschwitz Museum rather than Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp, the historic Kazimierz district of Krakow catering for Jewish cultural tourism yet devoid of Jews (even down to the ‘they look Ukrainian’ klezmer musicians playing in the Jewish cabaret). And the bizarre Holocaust denier in Krakow claiming the Jews had fled Poland with all their gold to Russia at the arrival of the Nazis.

Too Many Men is written as a stream of consciousness mixed with a political treatise. From the outset, Ruth is not a particularly likeable character who gets progressively more and more unpleasant. Even Edek challenges her rudeness and confrontational manner. That it is confronting for her, to experience this world so alien, to witness even today the level of anti-Semitism, is unquestionable. Her dealings with the grasping old couple that have lived for 60 years in a subdivided apartment of her grandparents old home, hoarding belongings of the dead Rothwaxes in the hope of a financial visit, is telling and devastating.

But Ruth ultimately becomes too much. Everyone is guilty (and in Too Many Men everyone is. There’s not one empathic Polish character – Ruth sees even Zofia as being on the make). Lily Brett’s novel becomes nothing more than an unpleasant, vitriolic attack on Poland and the Poles rather than a deeply personal, family-oriented perspective of the Holocaust. And the introduction of the spirit of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz, in a post- execution limbo ultimately made little sense other than as another device to educate readers to the horrors of the Holocaust and the inhumane rationalisation of the Final Solution.

The author herself is a Jewish second-generation Holocaust survivor of Polish Jews from the city of Lodz. How much Too Many Men is autobiographical is unclear. Her interest in the legacy of the Holocaust, intergenerational trauma for survivors and the continuance of anti-Semitism is overt and prevalent. However, my personal preference is not to be educated by an overwrought Ruth Rothwax whose answer to emotional biliousness is copious amounts of Mylanta indigestion tablets and whose emotional stability can range from ups to ‘depression’ in minutes. Anger – yes. Disbelief – yes. But the constant use of ‘I was depressed’ is ultimately self-defeating.

Having undertaken a similar journey with a second generation Holocaust survivor (Krakow, Lublin for Majdanek death camp, Warsaw), I can certainly understand many of Lily Brett’s concerns and issues (and like her, welcomed the presence of groups of young Israelis at the camps). But agit-prop stereotypes is counterproductive.

Its premise is a good one (although interestingly, reading the précis on the back cover, it’s interesting that the word ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ does not appear. I’m sure Ruth Rothwax would have something to say about that) but the final delivery is overlong and disappointing.

Too Many Men was shortlisted for the 2000 Miles Franklin award but lost out to the joint winners of Thea Astley’s Drylands and Benang by Kim Scott.

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

9781760111236A dystopian narrative of the future (or possibly the present), an imaginative story of misogyny and internment – Charlotte Wood’s haunting The Natural Way of Things is an Australian answer to Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and with more than a passing reference to the BBC TV series, Tenko.)

A group of 10 young women find themselves imprisoned in a remote, ruinous deserted sheep station somewhere in the Australian outback.

Lorded over by the sadistic Boncer, the camp is surrounded by an unscaleable electric fence. Their captors – Hardings International – represent the corporate moral right, punishing these girls of ‘low moral character’ for their highly public sexual escapades. Their captivity is to teach them ‘what’ they are (what rather than whom. As a discursive parable, The Natural Way of Things highlights that women are generally vilified and blamed rather than seen as victims or part responsible. It is Verla who was at fault in her affair with the politician, Yolanda to blame for being gang-raped).

Each girl is kept in an individual sheep pen, forced into hard labour, issued Hamish-style clothing, shorn of hair and fed starvation rations of dried food. Two males – Boncer and Teddy – are employed to keep them in their place along with the dubious Nancy. But as time passes, the food begins to run out and the Hardings International representative shows no signs of visiting. They are all captives.

The Natural Way of Things is a deeply unsettling yet poetic novel. The title itself raises many questions – is the natural way the survival of the fittest? Is it what has become ‘natural’? (the rampant misogyny in Australian culture?). The girls themselves represent diversity of class, ethnicity, education and personality with each finding their own way (singularly or in groups) to survive their ordeal.

But Woods primarily focuses on the fiercely independent Yolanda and the courageous Verla.

They barely speak to each other yet their bond is deep. In hunting for food, Yolanda keeps captives and captors alike alive. In hunting for mushrooms, Verla keeps herself alive in her determination to kill.

With his baton, Boncer is a vindictive bully, dangerous in his elevation to power: Teddy is a ‘surfer dude’, breezing through yet, less apparent, equally dangerous. As alpha male, Boncer is threatened by Yolanda but, through her hunting prowress, gives her a wide berth. His control slowly breaks down. Now, only the girls can rescue themselves.

With its underlying menace, The Natural Way of Things is bleak. Its starkness, like its landscape, is threatening – in spite of some beautifully poetic prose

‘What? We can’t hear you,’ and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

 Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel has, unsurprisingly, been garlanded with many awards, including the 2016 Stella Prize (best Australian novel written by a woman) and joint-winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature (shared with Lisa Gorton and The Life of Houses). The Natural Way of Things was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric.

‘Water Man’ by Roger McDonald

watermanMy introduction to the writings of Roger McDonald was through his 2010 novel, When Colts Ran. With its immersive sense of place and character in a small Australian outback town over a period of time and history, When Colts Ran is a sweeping paean to rural Australian life. But it’s no easy read.

McDonald’s earlier work, Water Man (published in 1993), also explores similar themes of displacement, disillusionment and uncertainty with its overlapping narratives of characters and events 50 years apart.

Mal Fitch is a successful Sydney theatre director native to Logan’s Reef, a dry, desolate Red Centre settlement. Mal returns every summer to work behind the bar at The Criterion Hotel – the only pub in a town now dying on its feet. His father is the near legendary water diviner Gunner Fitch, long dead, killed in World War II. It is Gunner’s rivalry with wealthy William D’Inglis, owner of the local flourmill, that continues to have repercussions on Logan’s Reef and the Fitch and D’Inglis families.

 More than 50 years earlier, Gunner was contracted to source water on the Croppdale property of the D’Inglis’ family. Instead, he went off to war and was blown up at the Battle of El Alamein. But Fitch knew there was water – and a lot of it – deep below the surface of the local rocky landscape. But now no-one knows where to bore – and the parched land and the few remaining residents are desperate. Like When Colts Ran, Water Man is no easy read. But, unlike the later book, Water Man is not particularly enjoyable. A litany of unpleasant characters with little or no redeeming features populates Logan’s Reef both past and present, with the centenarian William D’Inglis the cohesive element to the storyline. It is he that continues Gunner’s strange legacy.

The characters themselves are undoubtedly affected by the barren, arid landscape, a brutal environment of desperation, meanness and general unpleasantness. It is not just the drought-ridden soil that needs the replenishment of water. And Water Man does elicit change when the waters do eventually arrive. An almost magical change takes place among even the bitterest of men (there’s very few womenfolk), a modern day fable of our time. It’s just a pity that more investment in the fate of the locals had been garnered.

Water Man was one of only three novels shortlisted for the 1994 Miles Franklin award. McDonald, along with David Malouf’s superb Remembering Babylon lost out to Rodney Hall and The Grisly Wife.

 

‘Black Rock White City’ by A S Patric

black_rock_white_cityLoss, loneliness and dislocation are prevalent throughout Melbourne writer A S Patric’s debut novel.

As refugees from the Balkan wars, Jovan Brakocevic and his wife Suzanna are at a loss in their new Melbourne home. A former university lecturer and published poet in Sarajevo, Jovan is a cleaner at a local hospital; Suzanna cleans private homes. Their loss of a former life is palpable, the deaths of their two young children haunting their every move. Both are struggling to adapt – with their surroundings and with each other. A silence pervades.

Patric mixes his chronologies, slowly revealing the horrors of a country torn apart by religious and social wars, centuries in the making. Juxtaposed is the new everyday, where Jovan needs to concern himself with new brake pads or Suzanna leaving the lights on in their rented home. The couple are now in a country where a local Australian co-worker “… thinks he hates a boss or a politician or someone at his local pub,” Jovan observes, “but he hasn’t seen hate turn to fire, free-floating and exploding throughout a city, and then materialising again into a blistered red monster more real than any creature children imagine in night-time terrors.”

Black Rock White City is the story of trauma and the extent people can recover from tragedy and what happens to them in the process. It is told against the backdrop of an anonymous graffiti artist (labelled Dr Graffitio) vandalising the hospital and specialised equipment. It is this storyline that initially dominates, but slowly its prevalence becomes secondary. The real horrors are Balkan-related.

It’s bleak, challenging and deeply impressive. Yet I did not like Black Rock White City. Suzanna is the more interesting of the two central characters, but she only comes into any significant focus at the halfway stage. The novel’s slow beginnings centred on Dr Graffitio and Jovan’s sexual tryst with a dentist. The stark relationship between Jovan and Suzanna is beautifully realised: life in Sarajevo and Belgrade (White City) stunningly portrayed in its inhumanity and incomprehension. Yet the vandalism subplot gets in the way of this exploration, with its denouement a seemingly clumsy and abrupt afterthought.

Black Rock White City was presented with the 2016 Miles Franklin Award.

 

‘Highways to a War’ by Christopher Koch

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707An absorbing tale of courage in the face of adversity and, unusually, a war story set in Indochina where the emphasis is on the war as fought by local, as opposed to foreign, troops.

Australian photojournalist Mike Langford is an enigmatic but hugely popular Tasmanian farmboy who finds himself, almost by default, in the centre of the action in the mid 1960s. It is his disappearance years later inside the Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia and the search for him by his friends that is at the heart of Highways to a War.

Mike’s boyhood friend and executor of his estate, Ray, travels to Thailand on learning of the disappearance of a man he has not seen for many years. With cassette tapes left by Mike, photographs by the thousands (published or simply stored in boxes), a few accompanying notes and the stories of his friends and colleagues, Ray pieces together the extraordinary story of the boy who ran away from home in rural Tasmania to become a legendary war photojournalist.

But Mike was much more. He recorded not the US offensives: instead, he chose to focus on local Vietnamese (and later Cambodian) troops, recording the war from their perspectives. Less equipped than the Americans, involved in more of the hand-to-hand skirmishes, the risk was much higher for the troops and western media representatives. In telling the world their story, the unassuming photographer is elevated to mythic status in Saigon and (later) Phnom Penh.

But Highways to a War is also a love story. For Mike, there’s the businesswoman, Claudine Phan in Saigon followed by the true love of his life, the feisty Cambodian, Ly Keang. Core to the novel is the friendship of the three photojournalists, Langford, Jim Feng and Dmitri ‘Count’ Volkov: only one will survive. But overarching all is the love for country.

The result is a haunting novel that follows Mike’s own personal highways to war and a world of lives lived on the edge. Packed with compelling characters both inside the press circle and out, Highways to a War is a story of place and time vividly realised by Koch’s powerful but empathic writing.

Christopher Koch (1932-2013) is best known for his novel The Year of Living Dangerously, adapted for the screen in 1984 and starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, with Linda Hunt picking up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Yet Highways to a War is one of two Koch novels to win the Miles Franklin Award (the other being The Doubleman in 1985).

‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane

9780143571339I have to be honest – I did not like this debut novel from Australian author, Fiona McFarlane.

Ruth, a 75 year-old widow living alone on the edge of an (unnamed) east coast town, wakes up early one morning convinced there’s a tiger in her house. Later that morning, Frida sent ‘from the government’ as her morning help, turns up wheeling a suitcase.

And there’s the fundamental problem. In spite of a few minor reservations, Ruth’s son Jeffrey, living in New Zealand, is relieved that his mother has a part-time carer, sent from the government. Yet Ruth, with husband Harry, a former lawyer, has retired to what was once the three-bedroomed family holiday home. There’s a Mercedes in the driveway and (we find out later), $700,000 in the bank from the sale of the Sydney home. Yet Ruth gets a carer sent by the government? We know exactly where this little story is going from about page five.

Frida certainly takes control – Ruth is undoubtedly becoming a little forgetful (she’s lived on her own for almost five years since the death of Harry). And The Night Guest balances the cusp of forgetfulness, uncertainty and suggestion (Frida admits later she lied constantly and consistently). As Ruth forgets (or seemingly forgets) more recent events, so late teenage memories of Fiji and life with her missionary parents become more prevalent.

The Night Guest does, in its writing, have a certain charm. And as the unreliable narrator, Ruth and her perceptions of events around her are not always reliable. This adds an element of suspense as the story unfolds – has Ruth simply forgotten things and is Frida acting for the good of her charge?

The Night Guest explores ageing, manipulation, dependence and trust with a dose of symbolism regarding the impact of unwanted colonialism in the name of beneficence (missionaries in Fiji, Frida in Ruth’s home). Ruth desperately wants to maintain her independence, Frida injects psychological manipulation to undermine and, ultimately, defraud her.

McFarlane writes delicately and with tenderness. She is commenting on the neglect of the elderly by absent family members and neighbours without overly apportioning blame. Yet, with the risk of being pedantic, I could not get past the ‘from the government’ lie that sets the whole thing in motion.

The Night Guest was shortlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award – no mean feat for a debut novel considering the list featured previous winners Tim Winton and Alexis Wright as well as Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But they all lost out to Evie Wylde and All the Birds, Singing.

 

‘Golden Boys’ by Sonya Hartnett

9781926428611Four of the five shortlisted novels for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award were by women writers. In spite of losing out to Sophie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, to my mind Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys is the best of the four.

A small, unnamed town where the local kids take to the streets as the long summer holidays loom before them. The arrival of the Jenson family changes the dynamics – Colt and his younger brother Bastian are showered with gifts by their father: bikes, skateboards, Scaletrix – even a swimming pool.

But there’s something odd about Rex. He’s just there a little too often. The local boys arrive for a swim – Rex is there with his welcoming repartee. Scrapes and bumps need fixing – Rex is there with his first-aid kit. But he appears to be the answer for 13 year-old Freya – the eldest of the six Kiley siblings. A schoolgirl crush develops – unlike her own father, Rex is not the local drunk who terrorises his own family.

It’s Freya who carries the weight of responsibility of her dysfunctional family and, along with Colt, it is through their eyes that the narrative of Golden Boys develops. Both despise their fathers for their own reasons: both yearn for a different environment. Both, distantly, recognise a kindred spirit.

It’s a suburban landscape of times past (no smartphones, PCs, tablets) where kids spent their time outdoors – on bikes, skateboards or at the local creek. Golden Boys is a story of its time – the neighbourhood acceptance of domestic violence; the response by, and its effect on, children; the insidious nature of Rex insulated by money.

It’s a disquieting novel, a finely tuned picture of life in regional Australia in the late 1970s/early 1980s. But, family life seen from the perspective of children, it is also a time of confused innocence and a rude, confronting coming-of-age where there are codes of conduct and justice.

‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ by Richard Flanagan

9780857989208Published in 1997, The Sound of One Hand Clapping is author Richard Flanagan’s second novel (following on from Death of a River Guide, 1994). It is regarded as something of an Australian classic.

Set in his native Tasmania, Flanagan tells the story of Sonja and the tempestuous, often violent, relationship she has with her alcoholic father, Bojan Buloh. Having left home at the age of 16, Sonja has returned from her lonely Sydney life to the island ‘at the arse-end of the world.’ Thirty-five years earlier, Sonja’s mother had walked out of the forest cabin they called home never to be seen again.

It’s a haunting, tragic tale of loss and a desperate need for a sense of place and belonging: a lament for things past.

A time-fractured narrative provides a 30-year time span as the 38 year-old Sonja returns to Tasmania for the first time in 22 years. She has not been in touch with her father since the day she walked out of their home.

A post-war Eastern European migrant, Bojan and his wife, Maria, witnessed first-hand the violent Nazi occupation of their Slovenian homeland along with the equally traumatic liberation by the Russian Red Army. Escaping to the west, they eventually settled in Tasmania where the various massive state hydroelectric schemes in the 1950s created huge demands for labour. European migrants in the thousands found themselves in makeshift camps in the dense rainforests, isolated from the rest of the world and each other with their silence of the horrors of shared experiences.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Bojan continues to survive as a loner in such camps. No personal possessions, no friends, poor English, the ghosts of the past laid low with the aid of the demon drink. A living death, it is Sonja’s return and the slow intrusion of the past, its shadows and its occasional glimpses of light and laughter that provide hope.

Sonja herself is unsure why she has returned, but her empty life in Sydney ultimately has no pull. Like her father before her, Sonja’s sense of displacement is palpable. Whether it is 1954, 1960 or 1989, Sonja has no sense of ‘home’, no sense of belonging.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a heartbreaking story of deeply damaged people destroyed by circumstance, history and their own inabilities to cope with the hand fate has dealt them. Geography also plays a key part – the brooding, menacing forest-scape of Tasmania is interchangeable with the war-torn forests of Europe: the seemingly constant rains (or snow): the occasional glimpses of blue skies providing hope or redemption.

But much of the impact of The Sound of One Hand Clapping is undone by its structure – 86 chapters over 425 pages. Staccato in time (the chapters jump from 1954 to 1989 to 1967 to 1954) creates a staccato flow of emotion and narrative, breaking up the story too much to feel any real empathy with the characters themselves.

The non-specific story of displaced refugees from a war-torn Europe, finding a new home in a foreign country where they are not welcome is a sadly universal one. How each individual deals with the sense of loss of their previous life and events witnessed, again can be traumatic. But no matter how poetic (and at times it is beautifully so) Flanagan’s writing is, I found Sonja and Bojan non-empathic as central characters to a book that is, to a large extent, reliant on an investment of emotion, sympathy and empathy.

Shortlisted for the 1998 Miles Franklin Award, The Sound of One Hand Clapping lost out to Peter Carey’s retelling of Great Expectations, Jack Maggs.