‘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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‘West of Sunshine’

west of sunshineDesperation rears its ugly head as Damian Hill (Pawno, The Death & Life of Otto Bloom) juggles work, a gambling addiction, a $15,000 debt payable to a loan-shark by close of business and a day to be spent with his adolescent son.

It’s a small, warm-hearted feature from first-time feature filmmaker, Jason Raftopoulos, shot in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, with the focus on Hill and real-life stepson Tyler Perham. Whilst West of Sunshine would have benefitted from a harder look at gambling addiction and the impact it has on family and friends, the film is ultimately an intimate exploration of fatherhood.

Rating: 59%

‘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).

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

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

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

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

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

That’s the end of the barbecue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

‘Ali’s Wedding’

19983521_1884953185091404_3701407671146097916_oVoted as The Age newspaper’s best Australian film at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Ali’s Wedding is a dire rom-com that, based on true events, mistakenly plays everything for laughs.

The son of a popular cleric at the local mosque, Ali (Osamah Sami, writer of the film) lies his way through his exam results, inflating his score to the point he needs to study medicine at the prestigious University of Melbourne. A non-enrolled attendee at lectures, he falls in love with the Australian-Lebanese Dianne (Helana Siwares – Banana Boy), even though he, as an Iraqi, is due to marry to Yomna. How is he going to get out of this?

Squirm inducing humour that encourages laughter at points of difference, lack of character development that results in seeming stupidity (Ali’s mother in particular) and the occasional comedic moments that are poorly or overly developed in an (ill-conceived) attempt to maximise the humour: Ali’s Wedding is very disappointing.

Rating: 36%

‘Pawno’

279391-pawno-0-230-0-345-cropMinor Melbourne-set Australian film which nevertheless beautifully captures a day in the life of several characters in the down-at-heel working-class, multicultural suburb of Footscray.

It’s an ensemble driven piece built around local legend John Brompton (Red Hill, Romper Stomper) as Les, owner of the local pawn shop. Characters come and go as they drop into the shop to (mostly) sell or (occasionally) buy. It’s honest, occasionally gritty and with more than a touch of humour.

Rating: 60%