Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

I loved Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty! I’ve been a bit hit and miss with this author’s books in the past, as I’ve loved the contemporary Australian settings and characters of her stories, but have disliked her story-telling technique her characters all knowing something which the reader doesn’t, and not telling. Nine Perfect Strangers tells the story without harking back to anything and I found this a far more enjoyable read.

The story follows nine people who meet at a health and wellness retreat in a remote location in Australia.

The main characters include Frances, a middle-aged, overweight author, whose most recent romance novel has been rejected by her publisher, Ben and Jessica, whose marriage is failing after they won millions of dollars in the lottery, Tony, a former AFL star and Carmel, whose husband recently dumped her for a younger woman. More minor characters included a bereaved family of three and an extraordinarily handsome man who regularly holidays at health retreats.

The retreat at Tranquillum House began with massages, mindful (?) walks in the bush and a diet tailored to each of the guest’s needs, along with a five-day period of silence, however things went pear-shaped when the retreat’s director used illegal and unconventional treatments on her guests without their awareness or consent.

Top moments for me included a section where Frances found herself in an imaginary conversation with dead friend and insisted that she was a fictional character, and the protagonist, no less. I laughed out loud.

I also found myself smiling when divorced mother-of-four Carmel realised that in exchange for her husband, she’d got herself an upgrade, because his new wife wanted to be involved in the children’s lives and was mad to take the girls to their ballet lessons and all that that entailed. For those of you who have never experienced children’s dance schools, trust me, you’ve had a lucky escape. Parents are expected to sew costumes, gather wispy strands of baby-fine hair into buns, put make-up on children without making them look like clowns then sit through endless performances of tiny children wandering aimlessly around on stage before their own child finally gets to perform in their own blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. And take it from me, when your own child finally makes it on to the stage, you won’t be able see them anyway became they will be hidden behind some other kid who is the size of a truck… Or you’ll be asleep.

Nine Perfect Strangers is a funny book with an over-the-top plot and great characters, The story is light and enjoyable and would make a great beach read.

Preservation by Jock Serong

Preservation is Australian author Jock Serong’s most recent book. I bought this about six months ago, but have a silly habit of delaying things I’m looking forward to in order to prolong the pleasure of anticipation, so have only ‘allowed’ myself to read the book now. Ridiculous, I know…

Preservation is a fictionalised story of the survivors of a shipwreck which happened in 1797, when the Sydney Cove was wrecked near Preservation Island on Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland of Australia). Seventeen people, made up of five British and twelve Bengali sailors, took a longboat to the Gippsland coast where they were wrecked again. The men then set off on foot to Sydney, a town of only 1500 people at that time, by following the coast a distance of 700 kilometres. Only three of them arrived, including William Clark, a Scottish merchant whose diary entries were used as the foundation for this book.

The story has a number of narrators which include the three shipwreck survivors, William Clark, a fictitious character named John Figge and Clark’s lascar manservant, a boy named Svrinas. Other chapters are told by Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, whose job it is to ascertain what happened to the wrecked ship and to the men on their way to Sydney. Joshua’s wife Charlotte is also a narrator, and her chapters help to connect that of the British settlement in Sydney with the Aboriginal people who were already there. Each of the chapters is accompanied by a picture which helps the reader to determine who is speaking. Charlotte’s picture is of gum leaves, Svrinas’ is a lotus, Joshua’s is the crown and so on.

Joshua struggles to learn what happened to the survivors (and to those who didn’t make it to Sydney) due to the gaps between what Clarke and Figge tell him compared to what Clark wrote in his diary. It is clear that Clark and Figge are motivated to hide what actually happened on the trek to protect their wrecked cargo, ostensibly tea but actually rum.

The fictional story of the journey from the beach in Gippsland along the coast to Sydney is fascinating. The survivors set off on foot, crossing rivers in rafts they built along the way. They were watched the whole way by Aboriginal people in each district they passed through, sometimes interacting with them in a friendly way, being fed and assisted along their way and other times being treated with hostility. Some of the survivor’s behaviours caused the hostility and was sadly indicative of British attitudes at the time towards people of other races. It was interesting to read of the lascars and the Aboriginals’ respect for each other and more ready acceptance of each other’s ways.

Having lived on the NSW south coast for many years, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the areas the survivors passed through and was able to recognise the places where various events occurred, even though they were not named, including a near drowning in as the men crossed the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.

John Figge is a frightening character who almost but not quite, dips into the supernatural. I didn’t like this aspect of the story and thought his character and story strong enough to have been satisfactory without this element. I also thought that the storyline connecting Charlotte with John Figge was unnecessary, although other parts of her story were vital.

I didn’t enjoy Preservation as much as I’ve liked other of Jock Serong’s books (The Rules Of Backyard Cricket is particularly brilliant) but it was an interesting read. I’m in awe of this author’s ability to tell a completely different story in each one of his books.

Ada by Kaz Cooke

I’m a fan of Kaz Cooke’s newspaper columns, children’s stories and life-advice books. The Terrible Underpants is hilarious and perfect for reading to young primary-school aged nieces, while Girl Stuff is exactly the thing to give teenage girls additional confidence. A friend gave me Real Gorgeous years and years ago and I’ve often dipped in to it. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by Ada.

Ada is a novel based on the life of a real person, Ada Delroy, a dancer, comedian and singer who toured the world with her own vaudeville troupe in the late 1800s. In this book, the fictional Ada tells her story in the first person to a visitor, a young man, as she is dying of tuberculosis in Melbourne.

Ada’s story is fascinating and her voice is hilarious, but tiring. She fades in and out of consciousness with the assistance of morphine in little blue bottles.

Life on the stage wasn’t as glamourous as it looked to the audience, with performers having to leave their children behind due to the constant travel and money woes, jealousies and rivalries between performers, scams, the theft of each other’s acts and constant packing up and travelling. There was a wonderful sense of belonging between the troupe members though, who were closer than most families, and the excitement of performing for royalty, miners and everyone in-between.

I loved the references to Melbourne from the turn of the century. I checked on places I hadn’t heard of before and was delighted to find photos of long-gone coffee palaces and cafes. The following description is the Melbourne I know, although it doesn’t smell anymore:

Melbourne smelled like an outhouse, but if you sook some eucalyptus oil on your hanky she was beautiful – even the buildings seemed full of ease, with generous porticos and gracious wide stairs in the honey-coloured local stone forever bathed in golden light. Everything had extra decoration: wrought-iron ‘walks’ on the top of shiny zinc and copper rooves, arched windows with gargoyles on the upper corners, windowsills wide enough to sit on and swing your legs.

The photos used in the book are real too and include photos of Ada and her company, advertising photos and posters. The story also includes references to various performances by Harry Houdini while in Melbourne.

While I loved the historical element of the story and the Melbourne references, Ada’s actual voice was the weak point. Her constant jokes and cheekiness and funny little sayings were too relentless to be able to appreciate the story comfortably. I enjoyed the historical references enormously though.

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

The Tree of Man by Patrick White is so good that I’m afraid of not being able to do justice to it in this review. I’m desperate to convince other people they should read this book and don’t think I can do any better than the quote on the back cover of the copy I read from the New York Times Book Review from when this novel was first published, in 1955:

A timeless work of art from which no essential element of life has been omitted.

Superficially, The Tree of Man is a story of the lives of an Australian couple who settle a remote property and bring up a family.

After the death of his parents, Stan Parker went to live on a property near Sydney which he had inherited, clearing the land and building a shack before finding a wife to share his life.

As a young couple Stan and Amy were happy, taking pleasure in each other and their lives, which were made up of repetitive days upon days of farm chores and conversation which barely skimmed the surface of their deepest thoughts. Their quiet lives were rarely interrupted, but when it was, it was by a big event, such as a flood where Stan and other men from the area assisted stranded neighbours, or war, or the birth of their two children, Ray and Thelma.

When they reached middle age, Stan and Amy seemed to lose the connection they had when they were younger, realising they never truly understood each other and that they probably never would, although both continued to desire this understanding their whole life. Their children grew up and left home, going on to disappoint them in all of the ways that children do and leaving Amy wondering aloud to Stan if perhaps together they weren’t a good match to breed. In old age, the city had expanded out to their farm and they were both still trying to understand life, death and god, although not religion. The last chapter absolutely floored me, with Stan and Amy’s grandson deciding to write a poem about life before deciding the subject was too big for him.

The Tree of Life reminded me of Australian artist Frederick McCubbin’s painting The Pioneers. Made up of three panels, it shows a selector and his family starting out on their land, the second panel showing that over time they have become established before ending with the city having come to them and a death. I would love to know if this painting, which I occasionally go and look at in the National Gallery of Victoria during my lunch time, influenced Patrick White’s story. I think there is a quote from the book with the painting in the gallery, so it seems possible.

Each appearance of Amy’s friend and neighbour, Mrs O’Dowd, was a source of amusement due to the trouble she brought on herself wherever she went. In the early days she almost got herself and Amy ‘jobbed’ after insulting a group of young men, another time the two of them were chased around and around the O’Dowd’s dirty, falling down hovel by Mr O’Dowd who was trying to shoot them while he was shickered. I’ve never heard the word ‘shickered’ before, but it makes me laugh and I don’t even drink. Later, it come out that Mrs O’Dowd wasn’t really a ‘Mrs’. Somehow Amy wasn’t as shocked as I was.

Despite the simplicity of their lives, Stan and Amy lived a life full of every emotion that every person feels. They experienced hope and sorrow, jealousy and lust, hurt and hopelessness, joy and acceptance, confusion and apathy. They hide their feelings from each other and from themselves, with rare moments of understanding and seeing into each other.

The everyday life part of the story made me feel nostalgic for my family stories from my grandparents times, clearing the land which would become the family farm, day in and day out doing manual chores, feeling affection for their cows and eating what they could grow themselves, helping their neighbours and being helped themselves in times of need, battling natural disasters and building a family, the men going off to war while the women carried on at home, later seeing their children grow up to make their own way in the world and being left behind eventually to continue their own lives, becoming grandparents, growing old and selling off or leaving the farm, watching old friends die, until their own time had come.

Patrick White is a huge name in Australian writing. He won the inaugural Miles Franklin award and loads of other writing prizes including the Nobel Prize for Literature before taking himself out of the running for further prizes, in order, as he said, to give younger, less established authors a chance to win. He took a public stance in controversial Australian issues of his time, including opposing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and becoming ‘antiroyalist’ after the 1975 constitutional crisis. He was also quoted as saying that he would be embarrassed to be held up to the world as an Australian writer, when he felt as if he was at heart a “cosmopolitan Londoner”. I don’t think the ‘cultural cringe’ which Australian artists felt in the 1950s through to around about the 1980s is a thing anymore, but it was a popular mindset at that time. Later, White opposed uranium mining and spoke publicly to call for the destruction of nuclear weapons.

The Tree of Man has a level of detail which I’ve rarely come across in a novel. The writing is beautiful and I read some of it aloud to myself (not on the train) just for the pleasure of hearing how the words went together. I could almost turn back to the first page and re-read this book again, but there are plenty of other books he has written too, and I’m torn. The Tree of Life is going to be a difficult book to beat for my book of the century (if I live that long).

The Tree of Man was book seven for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

 

Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion & Anne Buist

I’ve been a bit hit and miss with Graeme Simsion. I enjoyed The Rosie Project, was bored by The Rosie Effect and irritated by the main character’s middle-aged self-indulgence in The Best of Adam Sharp. Happily for me, I found Two Steps Forward to be a joyful, inspiring read, a romance mixed with a travelogue.

The story follows Zoe and Martin as they walk the Camino Way from Cluny in France to Santiago in Spain. Zoe has been recently widowed and didn’t know the walk existed until she arrived in Cluny from America to visit a friend for comfort, while Martin, an Englishman who has recently divorced, builds a cart with the intention of making his fortune from the sale of the design after he completes his journey towing the cart.

Zoe and Martin’s chapters are told alternately. Their paths cross regularly as they walk and their friendship eventually grew into a romance, although both had emotional baggage as well as a physical struggles to deal with along their way. Zoe needed to face up to her husband’s death and the loss of her own identity during their marriage, and Martin, the end of his marriage and his ability to meet the emotional needs of his teenage daughter.

Other characters include a German engineering student who romances his way along the Camino Way, a group of Brazilian women who party (and taxi) their way to Santiago, hostile hosts, kind strangers and loads of other walkers.

My only grizzle about the story is that Zoe’s emotional balance after being a widow for only three weeks seemed unrealistic to me, but the parts of the story which deal with the walk itself are fascinating. In real life, the journey from Clunes to Santiago is approximately 2000 kilometres and takes about three months to walk. The afterword says that the authors, who are married (to each other) actually walked the Camino Way twice together.

I enjoyed learning about the history of the walk, a pilgrimage which is several centuries old, also about the logistics of the journey, including the approximate distances between towns, how pilgrims feed themselves along the way, where they sleep and the financial cost of making the journey. A film called The Way was referenced several times in the story, and I’ll probably watch it sometime soon to get a more visual idea of the scenery.

Obviously, I’m thinking of learning French and Spanish, and have begun walking around the block to get into training with the intention of making my own trek one day. There will be blisters…

99 Interpretations of The Drover’s Wives by Ryan O’Neill

99 Interpretations of The Drover’s Wives by Scottish author Ryan O’Neill is one of the most inventive books I have read in years. The author has taken Henry Lawson’s 1892 classic Australian short story, The Drover’s Wife and retold it 99 times.

The Drover’s Wife tells the story of a woman, alone with her four children and a dog in a two-room bush shack 19 miles from another shanty. Her husband has been away droving sheep for six months. The action begins with her oldest child, Tommy, spotting a black snake which disappears under the house before she can kill it.

The woman puts her children to bed that night on the kitchen table and as she watches for the snake to re-emerge, she reads the Young Ladies Journal and remembers the events of her life which she has managed alone, such as the time she fought a flood, another time when she had to fight a bushfire, crows, maddened cattle, a menacing swaggie and saddest of all, when one of her children died and she rode the 19 miles alone carrying her dead child in the hope of finding assistance.

In the morning the snake comes out from beneath the house, and together with the dog, the drover’s wife kills it with a big stick. The story ends with Tommy telling his mother he’ll never go away droving when he is a man.

Ryan O’Neill’s 99 versions of the story are extraordinarily varied. There is a fable, a parable, a cryptic crossword with answers and a text version with emojis. The Year 8 English Essay version and The Sporting Commentary versions are hilarious. I particularly enjoyed A 1950’s Children’s Book, which left me feeling unexpectedly sorry for the snake.

Now not far away from the house of the drover,

Half asleep in the sun without any cover,

As long and thin and straight as a rake

Was a friendly black reptile called Cecil Snake.

The 99 interpretations also include Glaswegian, Math Problems and Postmodern. There is a version in the style of A Golden Age Detective Novel, another as Finnegan’s Wife and a Cosmo Quiz to find out, Which Wife Are You?

The Ocker version spoke my language.

Dead set, it was the snake! Tommy came up like the blue blazes, game as Ned Kelly, but she held him off as the dog nabbed the snake by the tail. Then she walloped the bugger a good one on the noggin and chucked it on the fire.

The 99 retellings of this story has added to my enjoyment and appreciation of Henry Lawson’s original story. I cannot imagine what this writer will do next, but I’m already looking forward to finding out whatever that might be.

The following is a link to Henry Lawson’s original story.

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/DrovWife.shtml

Happy Australia Day for tomorrow, everyone.

Stories: The Collected Short Fiction by Helen Garner

stories

Stories: the Collected Short Fiction contains some of Australian author Helen Garner’s best known short stories. There wouldn’t be too many Australian readers of a certain age who haven’t read Postcards from Surfers or My Hard Heart, both of which are in this collection.

The only fiction I’d read by Helen Garner prior to this collection was Monkey Grip, which I found too grungy for my tastes. While I didn’t finish Monkey Grip, I appreciated the author’s unpretentious and honest writing style and after reading Everywhere I Look, a collection of essays and extracts from the author’s diaries I decided to try her fiction again.

Most of these short stories had an autobiographical feel, including A Happy Story. The narrator buys two tickets for her teenage daughter to see a rock band and is unwillingly roped into attending the concert when none of her daughter’s friends can go. Luckily, the narrator’s sister says she will take the other ticket and the narrator enjoys a happy trip home listening to classical music through her car’s radio. This story is set in Melbourne, and although the Entertainment Centre is now the Collingwood Football Club’s headquarters, the familiarity of the setting is there. The band playing was Talking Heads, which firmly set the story in a particular time.

Postcards from Surfers is from the 1970s and is an Australian classic. A woman flies up to Coolangatta to stay with her parents and her aunt on the Gold Coast, back when the developers couldn’t sell apartments in their brand new high rises. The woman’s backstory is told in a series of postcards to a former lover named Philip. Reading between the lines, I didn’t think the narrator was over Philip…

Little Helen’s Sunday Afternoon also has an autobiographical feel. Little Helen is a fish out of water, too young to understand her mother and aunt’s conversation and humor. After being sent to play with her cousin Noah, Little Helen will probably be scarred forever after being shown horrific photos of maimed and deformed children.

The narrator in The Life of Art tells little stories about her friend which together make a whole story. The following one made me laugh, because it is true!

My friend came off the plane with her suitcase. ‘Have you ever notices,’ she said, ‘how Australian men, even in their forties, dress like small boys? They wear shorts and thongs and little stripy T-shirts.’

Civilisation and its Discontents stars another character named Philip. I knew I was right when I said the narrator (author?) in Postcards from Surfers wasn’t over Philip.

I preferred Helen’s Garner’s essays and non-fiction to her fiction so plan to read more of these in future. I don’t expect to agree with or like everything she writes, but I like that she is an author who isn’t afraid to say what she thinks.

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