Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘novel’

The Survivors by Jane Harper

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Australian author Jane Harper and The Survivors was no exception. I’m writing this review after sitting up until 1.30am to finish the story so have spent my Saturday feeling tired and sluggish. If my spelling is wrong and my words are in the wrong order, blame Jane Harper.

This story was set in a small coastal town in Tasmania where everyone knew everyone else. There were a few blow-ins to Evelyn Bay each summer but for the rest of the time, the locals had the place for their own and that’s how they liked it. The town had one cafe and one police officer, although when the story began the police station was on the verge of being closed and the service relocated to the next big town. When Bronte, a young artist who was staying in Evelyn Bay for the summer was found dead on the beach, everyone in town became a suspect in her murder.

The main character in this story was Keiran, a young man living in Sydney with his partner Mia and their baby Audrey. They had returned to Evelyn Bay to help Keiran’s mother pack up the family home as Keiran’s father’s dementia had worsened to the point that he had to go to a care-home.

The shock of Bronte’s death dredged up an enormous amount of anger and suspicion, much of which had been lying dormant since a terrible storm twelve years ago when Keiran’s brother and his best friend died in an accident at sea while trying to rescue teen-aged Keiran who had gotten himself stuck half way up a cliff. During that same storm a young local girl also went missing and had never been found.

Keiran’s guilt about the death of his brother and his friend hung over every moment of every day of his life. Keiran’s return to Evelyn Bay stirred up his own emotions, as well as those of his parents, who never actually said that they blamed Keiran for his brother’s death, but never said that they didn’t either. Keiran’s presence also troubled other locals who had been impacted by the two deaths and by the other girl’s disappearance.

I felt very connected with the story’s setting and loved the remote, wild, coastal Tasmanian location. I also enjoyed the various mysteries, which kept me guessing until the author revealed exactly what had happened to Bronte and to the others during the storm twelve years ago.

The only problem I had with The Survivors was that there was a cast of thousands and by the end I still couldn’t remember exactly who was who. To sum up, there was Keiran, Mia and their baby Audrey, and Keiran’s parents, Brian and Verity. Then there was Keiran and Mia’s friend’s Ash, Olivia and another bloke whose name I’ve forgotten, the local cop who had a crush on Olivia, the missing girl’s mother, plus a famous writer from the mainland.

Looming over the rest was Keiran’s brother Finn and Ash’s brother Toby (who died in the storm), Olivia’s younger sister Gabby (who went missing during the storm), another bloke whose name I’ve also forgotten but he owned the cafe and had married Toby’s widow, the cop who had a bit of a thing for Olivia (oh hang on, I said him already, I told you I was tired) and Toby’s son Liam, who was the stepson of the bloke who owned the cafe. Liam desperately resented Keiran for being the cause of the accident that killed Toby, who had been his father.

I’m already looking forward to Jane Harper’s next novel, and am guessing at where it might be set since each of her books have been set in vastly different locations.

My purchase of The Survivors by Jane Harper continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (October).

Trio by William Boyd

Trio by William Boyd was unlike anything I have previously read by this author.

The story was set in Brighton in the late 1960s and followed a group of people working together to make a film.

The novel’s main character was the producer, Talbot Kydd. Talbot was rich, kind and a gentleman. The day to day irritations of Talbot’s job involved keeping the ego and mad ideas of the film’s director in check, ensuring the film’s stars turned up to work and stopping crew members from stealing film to make pornographic movies.

The director’s wife, renowned author Elfrida Wing was a barely-functioning alcoholic who hadn’t written anything in ten years. When Elfrida came up with an idea for a new novel based on Virginia Woolf, who Elfrida’s own writing was often compared to, Elfrida bailed up Woolf’s husband Leonard in his own garden and asked him about the events of the day his wife suicided. I don’t think I’ve ever cringed more while reading a novel.

The third main character was Anny Viklund, the star of the movie. Anny was a victim of her own stupidity when it came to men. During her time on the film she had an affair with her co-star, a sweet English pop star who took Anny home to meet his parents, but was at the same time assisting her terrorist ex-husband who had escaped from jail and trying to please her current lover, a French philosopher.

None of the character’s private lives crossed over into each others’, although their stories co-existed comfortably. Each of the characters had secrets and problems to endure. Talbot was secretly gay and had a life his wife and son knew nothing about (nothing sordid, more a secret life), Anny was secretive about her drug use and juggling her various relationships, while Elfrida was hiding alcoholism and the fact that she knew her husband was having an affair with the film’s scriptwriter.

When I think about Trio in future I expect I’ll recall Elfrida’s obtuseness during her conversation with the fictional Leonard Woolf. This made me wonder if authors are so single-minded when they are immersed in writing a novel that they don’t consider or care that their research may potentially be offensive, or if William Boyd used this scene to make fun of real authors or even of himself.

Trio wasn’t my favourite of Boyd’s novels, but the Elfrida-Leonard Woolf scene might make it the most memorable.

Field of Poppies by Carmel Bird

Field of Poppies is the first novel I’ve read by Australian author Carmel Bird. The author’s bio says she has written 11 novels and eight short story collections, been short-listed three times for the Miles Franklin Award and won the Patrick White Literary Award. I can’t think why I haven’t read anything by her before.

The story is narrated by Marsali Swift, who with her husband William moved to the fictional town of Muckleton in central Victoria from Melbourne in what is popularly known in Australia as a ‘tree-change’. In Muckleton, Marsali and William lived in a grand old house called Listowel and immersed themselves into the community, even though the locals know that anyone from the city are just blow-ins. To be a local people’s parents, grandparents and preferably their great-grandparents had to have lived in the area too.

First of all, Muckleton. If that place isn’t real, then it should be if only for the name alone. I kept saying Muckleton over and over again as I was reading, just because I like how the name sounds. I have a mental image of Muckleton and think it must be similar to the central Victorian town of Castlemaine, which has an enormously grand Post Office that was built on the promise of gold, gold and more gold being found in the district. Also, there is also a small town called Muckleford just a few kilometres from Castlemaine. Close enough?

Sigh. I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. This isn’t surprising because Marsali’s narration was a succession of anecdotes which hopped from one to another. Some of Marsali’s stories were about Muckleton residents, places or events, while others were based on discussions of novels from Marsali’s book group who read Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland after a local Muckleton woman named Alice Dooley disappeared. Marsali’s version of events were occasionally interrupted by William’s Wise Words, where he chimed in to add to the story with interesting and detailed facts.

A great many of the anecdotes were related to Claude Monet’s painting The Poppy Field, or a copy of the painting which was made by Marsali’s Aunt Clarissa, who was a talented copyist artist.

One night, when Marsali and William had driven to Melbourne to attend an opera (La Traviata) at the Arts Centre, Listowel was robbed. The thieves were two local men whose vehicle hit a kangaroo while they were leaving town with the loot. One of the men died in the accident but the other was charged with theft then went back to his Real Estate business, without any loss of business by the locals. Marsali and William’s antiques and collectables were returned to them along with the copy of The Poppy Field, but how they felt about Muckleton changed.

The disappearance of Alice didn’t help, but when a Chinese gold mine started up, bringing jobs and noise and dust to the town and to Listowel in particular, since the road to the mine went past their back door, Marsali and William upped stumps and moved back to a high-rise apartment in Melbourne (in the Eureka Tower, mind you. I’ve been up to the skydeck to look at the view over Melbourne and it is sensational. The Eureka Tower was named for Australia’s own Eureka Stockade, where gold miners took on the English authorities who were taxing them out of existence).

I loved the rambling, inter-connected story-telling style of Field of Poppies. I loved Muckleton and its community. I loved the idealism of the tree-changers. I loved the opinions of the book club’s members of the books they read. I loved the coincidences and the randomness of the anecdotes. I’ll definitely be reading more of Carmel Bird’s stories in future.

Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch is a collection of four short stories for adults. Each story is a perfect showcase for Roald Dahl’s talent for entertaining readers by creating nasty characters who behave in nasty ways.

The Visitor is an extract from the diary of the fictional Oswald Hendryks Cornelius when he was tom-catting around the Sinai in 1946 at the age of 51. Although Oswald didn’t look dangerous (he wasn’t tall, dark or handsome), he could seduce any woman he wanted with his fascinating voice and a flare of his nostrils. Once the conquest had been made, Oswald moved speedily to his next challenge.

Unfortunately for Oswald, his expensive and glamourous sportscar, a Lagonda, broke down in the desert as he was fleeing his latest victim. Luckily a stranger with an exceptionally beautiful wife and daughter took Oswald in for the night.

For those who are interested, the following photos shows a Lagonda. I was more smitten by the car than by Oswald.

The Great Switcheroo tells the story of two married men who came up with the idea of swapping beds for a night without telling their wives who they would be sleeping with. Moral qualms, anyone? The Great Switcheroo is effectively a story about two men raping each other’s wives.

The main character in The Last Act was a widow who loved her husband dearly. After he died the woman’s doctor put the idea into her head that she would never be happy again until she found herself another man. Despite the doctor’s ridiculous advice the woman eventually moved past the first stages of grief, took a job and found that life was worth living again, until she met up with an old boyfriend who took his revenge on her for having dumped him many years ago.

Bitch was another extract from Oswald Hendryks Cornelius’ diaries. In this account Oswald invested in a perfume which sent men into a frenzy, in the way of a male dog in the vicinity of a female dog on heat. Due to a series of unfortunate incidents all except one sample of the perfume was destroyed, but Oswald managed to save the last sample with the intention of using it to bring down an American President.

The stories all have a nastiness about them but happily most of the darker characters got their comeuppance except for those The Last Act, which was a particularly cruel story. The other three stories were at least amusing, despite the moral questions they raised.

I admire writers who aren’t afraid to write stories that offend or disturb their readers, although I don’t always want to read these types of stories. I suspect this collection won’t be for everyone but for anyone who appreciates dark and twisted characters and doings, it’s hard to go past Roald Dahl.

Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna

Infinite Splendours is Australian author Sofie Laguna’s most recent novel (published in 2020).

I’ve previously read The Choke and The Eye of the Sheep by this author. Both told the story of a child or teenager living in very difficult family circumstances.

Infinite Splendours also began with a child as the main character, although this story took on a different direction to The Choke and The Eye of the Sheep by continuing to following Lawrence’s story until he reached middle age, showing how the traumatic events of his childhood affected the rest of his life.

Lawrence and his brother Paul grew up on a 40-acre property at the bottom of a mountain in the Southern Grampians, near Hamilton in Victoria. The small town they lived in, Hughton and their mountain, Mount Wallis were fictional, but as I read I was reminded of Mount Sturgeon which looms above the small town of Dunkeld in the Southern Grampians. I feel sure that Dunkeld and Mount Sturgeon inspired the locations for the book.

The boy’s father died in World War Two and they were raised by their mother, who sadly wasn’t the only war widow in the district. The boys always called her ‘Mother’, never ‘Mum’ or ‘Ma’. Their mother never showed Lawrence or Paul that she loved them in either her words or by physical affection, nor did they often receive praise, although she was proud of Lawrence’s academic achievements. In return, Lawrence and Paul’s behaviour was unfailingly formal, respectful and polite towards their mother.

Despite their mother’s lack of affection towards them, Lawrence and Paul were very fond of each other, and both were caring, kind children.

Lawrence and Paul were quite different to each other in their interests and abilities. Paul was a good sportsman who was mechanically-minded, while Lawrence was an academic and a naturally gifted artist. Lawrence’s school teacher recognised his talent from an early age and encouraged him to draw and paint, although his mother did not value his art.

Their mother worked hard and provided for the family but she saved all of her love for her brother Reggie, who hadn’t been seen since they were teenagers.

When their uncle wrote to say he was coming for a visit, their mother was overjoyed. Lawrence was pleased too, although Paul was not, perhaps sensing that their uncle would come between him and his brother.

Lawrence took to Uncle from the beginning and trusted and liked him. Paul, who had more street-smarts than Lawrence, did not. Uncle groomed Lawrence with attention and presents, and eventually raped him before leaving the district the next morning. Paul guessed at what had been done to Lawrence by Uncle but by then the damage was done. Lawrence suffered a nervous breakdown while Mother was none the wiser as to what had taken place.

Lawrence grew up to be a stammering wreck of a man who suffered physically and emotionally for the rest of his life. He pushed Paul away and was unable to form relationships with other adults. For a short while Lawrence worked at a dairy in nearby Hamilton but left even that after he was beaten up by his co-workers who were suspicious about the nature of his friendship with one of their young sons. By this time Paul had moved into town, leaving Lawrence alone on the property after their mother’s death.

The story then jumped ahead many years to find Lawrence a middle-aged man, still living in isolation on the family property and dependent on Paul for his food and art supplies. Lawrence had spent his years painting Mount Wallis and his immediate surroundings. He was content and nothing would have changed in his future except that a noisy young family moved into the long-vacant house next door to his, shattering his peace.

I didn’t enjoy Infinite Splendours as much as I have Sofia Launa’s other books, because the subject matter made this a particularly difficult read. I hated that Lawrence was abused as a boy and throughout the second part of this story, felt increasingly horrified and distressed wondering if Lawrence as an adult might do the same thing to another child. The question of whether predatory behaviour by adult men towards children is a result of their own childhood experiences and how much sympathy we should feel towards men in this situation loomed uncomfortably over the story, too.

I’ve written and rewritten that last sentence. Is the answer some, or none? I can’t decide. If I feel sympathy for a predator who was a victim himself does that make me a monster too? Feeling no sympathy for a victim whose learned behaviour made him a possible predator seems wrong, but so does feeling sympathy towards him.

While I felt angry that Lawrence was the victim of a predator, I also (and I acknowledge that this is completely unfair) felt annoyed that this was the story of a male victim when so many girls are victims too. I suppose the difference is that female victims of abuse generally don’t seem to perpetuate the abuse they received when they become adults, which means that this story had to be about a boy.

As per all of Sofia Laguna’s books, I loved her actual writing style and felt very connected to the Southern Grampians setting. I also enjoyed reading about Lawrence’s art and appreciated the ongoing joy he received when looking through a book depicting the work of the world’s greatest artists.

My purchase of Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (September).

Both of You by Adele Parks

I raced through Both of You by Adele Parks.

I doubt that I will remember the plot in years to come but I enjoyed the story while I was reading it, despite guessing who did what and why in this mystery-thriller.

The story began with a woman imprisoned in a bare room by an unknown person, before going back a few days to introduce Leigh, the wife of Mark and stepmother to Oli and Seb. It transpired that Leigh and Mark had married ten years ago, within a year of the death of Mark’s first wife. Leigh couldn’t have children of her own and felt lucky to have snaffled Mark and the boys. Leigh was something of a superwoman, running their family like clockwork and managing a high-powered job which took her all over the UK.

When Leigh didn’t come home from a work trip when expected, Mark called in the police.

The story then introduced glamourous Kai, who was married to the irresistibly rich, handsome Daan. When Daan reported Kai was missing after a visit to her mother, the same police officer was called in to investigate her disappearance. She recognised that there was a link between the two missing women.

To write more about the plot would spoil it for other readers.

None of the characters were perfect, although I liked some more than others. The main characters, Leigh and Kai had secrets they were hiding from their partners, families and friends. Their partners, Mark and Daan had secrets of their own. Family friends of Leigh and Kai had secrets, too.

Interestingly, the ‘now’ part of the story was set in London in March 2020 as the world went into the first COVID-19 lockdown. No doubt there will be many more novels set in COVID-19 times to follow, but this was a first for me.

Both of You was the author’s 21st novel. I would read another of her books in-between more serious reading.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career was Australian author Miles Franklin’s first novel, written when she was a very young woman and published in 1901 when she was just 21 years old. Prior to publication the author wrote to Australian writer Henry Lawson asking him to review her manuscript and provide her with advice, which he did. Lawson went on to write the preface to My Brilliant Career where he described Franklin as “a little bush girl” who had “lived her book.”

The story was told in the first person by Sybilla Melvyn, who was a sixteen-year old living with her parents, brother and sister at Possum Gully, a small farm near Goulburn in New South Wales when the story began. The family had been living at Possum Gully in poverty since Sybilla’s father had taken to drinking after losing almost everything from speculating in stock. Sybilla, who remembered happier times when her father had owned three stations in the Tidbinbilla Ranges, was homesick for the family’s old life in the mountains and was desperately unhappy and bored with the never-ending drudgery of farm and housework at Possum Gully.

Like many relationships between teenage girls and their mothers, Sybilla and her mother failed to understand each other’s character and butted heads constantly, so when Sybilla’s grandmother asked her to stay with her at Caddagut, her mother’s family home in the mountains, Sybilla was delighted.

Apart from wishing she was pretty and knowing that she wasn’t, tomboyish Sybilla thrived at Caddagut, where she was surrounded by books and music, loved and made a pet of by her grandmother, her aunt, uncle and the community in general. It wasn’t long before Harold Beecham, the richest, handsomest and most eligible man in the district fell in love with Sybilla and proposed marriage to her.

Sybilla wasn’t in love with Harold and wanted a brilliant career of her own, as either a writer, singer or as a performer, but she agreed to marry Harold on the proviso that they keep their engagement a secret and wait until she turned 21 to marry, in the hope that Harold would fall in love with someone else before then.

When Harold lost all of his money and property Sybilla felt honour-bound to remain true to him, despite Harold offering to release her from her promise to marry him. Then, when Sybilla’s father’s finances went from bad to worse (I can’t be the only person to have noted that a high proportion of the men in this story are terrible business men), Sybilla was obliged to work as a governess/housekeeper to the dirtiest, most illiterate family that ever lived, far from either Caddagut or Possum Gully. After eventually suffering a mental breakdown in service Sybilla returned home to Possum Gully.

Harold, who was possibly the luckiest bloke this side of the Murrumbidgee, inherited a pile from a woman who had loved his father back in the day, so he bought his station back and went in search of Sybilla at Possum Gully, who, despite being terribly unhappy and not seeing anything better in her future, took the opportunity to tell Harold as offensively as possible that she didn’t want to marry him.

The story ended without any hint of what Sybilla might do next, or with any hope that she would be able to escape the monotony of life at Possum Gully, although many years later a sequel, My Career Goes Bung was released.

My Brilliant Career should be required reading for all teenage girls. Not only was Sybilla’s story enormously entertaining, as she was an impulsive and headstrong character who as a result was constantly having to apologise for her dreadful behaviour, but she was also funny and clever and true to herself. She wanted what she wanted and wasn’t prepared to settle for less. Miles Franklin is celebrated as a feminist but there is a message in this character for everyone.

The story was written by Miles Franklin to entertain her own friends. It isn’t perfect, and it is easy to see that the story was written by a very young woman, one who liked melodrama and fun and excitement.

However, the settings are written so truly that I could see and smell and touch Sybilla’s beloved Caddagut, as well as her detested Possum Gully. The excitements of bush life were described so well that I felt a part of them, whether it be the thrill of seeing a snake on the road, the smell of smoke and the haze from a bushfire threatening the district, or the interest that comes from being part of a wider community with all sorts of things going on from the excitement and fun of attending bush races, to having a chat with everyone you know after the weekly church service or lively conversations and cups of tea with neighbours and friends who wouldn’t think of passing by without stopping in.

Modern readers will recognise the racism in the book. Aboriginal people are described using derogatory terms and have negative qualities attributed to them, as are Chinese, with one character suggesting to Sybilla that his casually offensive comments wouldn’t offend a Chinese man as the Chinese man didn’t have any feelings to be hurt. The story is a product of its times, although Sybilla at least disagreed with the character who said that the Chinese man didn’t have any feelings.

The author went on to endow the Miles Franklin Literary Award, an annual prize given for literature about Australian life in any of its phases. Recently the Stella Prize came into being as an annual award given to a female Australian author.

It has been far too long since I’ve read My Brilliant Career or any of Miles Franklin’s other works.

My Brilliant Career was book thirty one in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2022.

April Lady by Georgette Heyer

April Lady by Georgette Heyer was a delight from start to finish.

The story of beautiful and young Lady Nell Cardross whose family were known for being gamblers and wastrels, and her relationship with her older, masterful husband after a series of miscommunications left them doubting each other in every way was always going to end with a kiss, but how they got from the start to the finish of this story was fun.

After enjoying a comfortable arrangement for many years with a lady who wasn’t a lady, Lord Giles fell in love with seventeen-year old Nell at first sight, paid off the worst of Nell’s father’s spectacular gambling debts and married her. However Nell, who had also fallen in love with Lord Giles, was unfailing polite and amiable towards her husband but never showed him how she truly felt after her mother warned her not to in case she bored him.

Nell had no idea of how to manage money so spent a ridiculous amount of the generous allowance Giles made to her on dresses, hats and reticules, then against her husband’s explicit orders gave her brother Dysart a large sum to tide him over when he got into trouble.

On learning that Nell hadn’t been paying her bills Lord Giles called her to task before settling her accounts, leaving Nell feeling embarrassed and ashamed of herself, much like a small child who has gotten into trouble from their parent.

When Nell later received a staggeringly large bill for a court dress that she had forgotten to tell Lord Giles about, instead of telling her husband the truth she asked Dysart and his rackety friend to help her to raise the money, which allowed the story to leap from Nell almost going to the money-lenders (shocking!), to Dysart attempting a hold-up so he could steal the Cardross family jewels then sell them so Nell could pay her debts (even more shocking!)

Having caught Nell in several little white lies Lord Giles began to suspect that Nell had only married him for his money and, feeling humiliated and broken-hearted, was increasingly civil and cold to poor little Nell.

The supporting characters added enormously to this story. As well as Nell’s brother Dysart they included Lord Giles’ headstrong younger sister who was madly in love with a young man without any money and Lord Giles’ cousin, Mr Felix Hethersett, who acted as if he were Nell’s lover but was in reality her strongest supporter. Felix’s comments on fashion, particularly when providing advice to the female characters were priceless.

April Lady probably isn’t one of Georgette Heyer’s better stories, but even so, it was fun and there is no one like this author for historical romance, plus I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I started A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra knowing so little about Chechnya, the country where the story was set, that I couldn’t have pinpointed the country’s location on a map. If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t even know what continent Chechnya was part of. I vaguely recalled hearing the name on the television news and associated the country with bearded-guerillas armed with military-grade weapons and buildings so badly damaged by bombs that they need to be demolished, but like many people I ignore news stories that I don’t want to see or think about.

Several chapters into this book I realised that a whole new world had been opened up to me. I turned to Wikipedia to learn more about Chechnya and the country’s history, and learned of ferocious wars, genocide and disappearances of people of recent times. Very recent. I amended my search to ‘images’ and came up with photos of the country’s president, a jovial-looking bloke, then skimmed through an article where he said that he considered his wife (presumably his first wife since he has several) to be his property.

I exited the article and scrolled down further, hoping to see were photos of the countryside, the cities, the parks and the people but instead came across photos of many, many dead bodies lying in trenches. Never in a million years did I expect to see photos of the dead, so many photos of so many people who were killed on the edges of these terrible trenches for the convenience of their killers. I can’t stress enough that these photos were taken in my times. Our times. What kind of world are we living in?

My horror was compounded by the events that have been taking place in Afghanistan while I was reading this book. This time, I did pay attention to the news. Again, I have to ask what kind of world are we living in?

Don’t answer that.

We’re all living in the same world, but some of us are luckier than others. I’m lucky to live in a country where I am valued. I have clean water to drink, enough food to eat and a roof over my head. I received an education, I like my job and have the satisfaction of knowing that I contribute to society in a meaningful way. In general, the people in my country celebrate each other’s differences at best and tolerate or ignore them at worst. My country has rules that are fair, most of us follow them and recognise they exist to keep all of us safe. Our laws are the same for everyone regardless of their differences of gender, religion, age, education level, or their background. I know how lucky I am.

However, back to my book review.

I found A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to be a fascinating story. This was Anthony Marra’s first book who has since written several other well-received novels.

The main story was told over just a few days and featured a handful of characters linked to eight-year old Havaa, who were either as her family, neighbours or family friends from her village.

The very first sentence in this book described, in a very matter of fact way, the Feds burning down Havaa’s house and taking her father, Dokka.

Akhmed, a family friend and neighbour, found Havaa hiding and surreptitiously snuck her past various military checkpoints to a hospital in the nearby city of Volchansk, where he promised the doctor in charge that he would work for Havaa’s keep. Akhmed knew that if Havaa were to remain in the village she would soon be killed by the Feds in retaliation for a past event committed by others.

Akhmed was a doctor, but not a very good one. Prior to Akhmed’s arrival Sonja had been the last doctor remaining in the Volchansk hospital which had once employed hundreds of medical staff. Despite have little faith in Akhmed’s medical ability Sonja and the elderly nurse who assisted her agreed to Akhmed’s request out of necessity.

Due to extensive practice caused by people stepping on landmines, Sonja had become particularly skilled at performing amputations. I was partly horrified and partly amused reading about Akhmed carrying out his first amputation under Sonja’s instruction. ‘Amused’ may seem like a strange word to use, but Sonja made fun of Akhmed’s surprise to learn what colour a living person’s bone marrow was since he had only previously known marrow in the form of a cooked meat. In real life I probably would have passed out.

The story slid back and forwards over a ten year period from 1994 to 2004, between the first and second Chechen Wars. It told of Sonja and her relationship with her missing sister Natasha, Ahkmed and his friendships with Dokka and another of their neighbours, Ramzan, and of Ramzan’s father, Kassan. The friendship between the men had splintered after Ramzan became an informer on the people of their village after he and Dokka miraculously returned from the Landfill, a place where most detainees never returned from. The descriptions of the torture inflicted on almost all of the characters at one time or another was horrific, although to the characters themselves the torment was commonplace and they did not dwell on these events.

The history of Chechnya was also included in this story and it was complicated. Sonja and Natasha were ethnic Russians whose grandparents had been sent to Chechnya in Stalin’s time to populate the country. The remaining characters were Chechen Muslims and were considered to be less importance in their own country, but the references to the country’s history went back far beyond these characters and that of their grandparents. Chechnya doesn’t appear to have had much peace for at least 600 years.

The connections between the characters was woven together like delicate lace, with multiple strands connecting them and their stories.

In between telling the story of the main characters there were tiny little detours here and there into the lives of the minor characters. Some were precious memories while others were glimpses into the future. In their own way these little stories, almost asides, were souvenirs much like those that Havaa had collected from the refugees who stayed with her family as they passed through her village, leaving Chechnya on their way to somewhere else, somewhere safer, somewhere they could have a better life.

Despite the terrible times the characters were living in, there was plenty of humour in this novel, although much of it could be described as gallows humour. Ahkmed confused Ronald Reagan with Ronald McDonald as all American names sounded the same to him. A gangster was driven around and around his driveway in the backseat of his BMW by his driver since there were no intact roads left to drive on in the city. Deshi, the elderly nurse from the hospital had fallen in love twelve times previously and had hated oncologists ever since a love affair with a philandering one had left her heart-broken many years ago.

The constant personal losses suffered by the characters in this novel were heart-wrenching. Everyone carried their home address somewhere in their clothing in the hope that when they died their bones would be returned to their families (or whomever was left of them) and their homes (again, or what was left of them). Extraordinarily, those who didn’t die in violent circumstances would live to be an enormous age.

Anthony Marra’s writing was beautiful. I loved his story-telling style and felt connections with each of his characters without feeling as if I was wallowing in grief or terror or any of the other emotions they were feeling as they faced their terrible situations. The characters were sometimes brave and sometimes cowardly. During terrible events they were often resilient but at other times, minor issues devastated them. At all times they were human and I didn’t like to think too much about how I might have behaved if I had been in the situations they were in.

I would warn other readers that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena should be read when you have the time and energy to pay it full attention, because it isn’t a story that can be read lightly.

I’ll certainly read Marra’s other books.

The Strays by Emily Bitto

I loved The Strays by Australian writer Emily Bitto. The story was set amongst a group of bohemian modern artists living on a grand property in Melbourne during the 1930s. I am so interested in this topic and liked the setting and character’s stories so much that this book could have been written for me especially.

The story was narrated by Lily. As the only child of straight-laced, hard-working parents Lily’s suburban home life was what most of us would call ‘normal’.

When Lily met Eva Trentham at school they became friends. Lily had never been exposed to anything like Eva’s bohemian family and their world and she became completely fascinated by the Trenthams. Eva’s father Evan was a supremely confident and successful modern artist whose work pushed the boundaries of acceptability in Melbourne society. Helena, Eva’s mother, had inherited the grand property where they threw wild parties for other modern artists in their circle. Evan and Helena’s daughters Eva, Bea and Heloise were loved but neglected.

Lily’s parents didn’t much like Evan or Helena but they were slightly star-struck by the Trenthams and encouraged Lily and Eva’s friendship, and after Lily’s father suffered a serious accident were relieved when the Trentham’s offered to have Lily live with them. What Lily’s parents didn’t realise was that a houseful of other artists had also made their home on the Trentham property. Evan and Helena hoped to create their own form of Utopia as the artists worked in a shared space with Evan and made the Trentham home their own.

As young teenagers, Lily and Eva’s friendship was extraordinarily intense. They smoked marijuana (which in the spirit of the times when the book was set was called ‘reefer’) and drank the dregs of the alcohol discarded by the adults at the Trentham’s parties, attended glamourous art exhibitions and opening nights, and listened to the adults spout about their ideals. They saw Evan’s artwork seized by the police because it was considered to be debauched, and posed semi-naked for an attractive young male artist living amongst them.

Eventually, the fun stopped when two of the Trentham’s daughters became sexually involved with one of the artists.

I think everyone has been fascinated by someone else’s family at some point in their life, and know that I was. My conservative family background meant that when I was exposed as a teenager to a friend’s hard-living household I thought it all very exciting and desperately wanted to be part of it. I didn’t see then that what I thought was glamourous and wild was actually a fairly unhappy and sordid way to live. However, looking back at her time with the Trentham’s in later life, Lily’s experience was different to mine. Her exposure to the Trentham’s formed her in that she went on to become an art historian and used her personal exposure to the Trentham era to document their times.

I was interested in the connections between the Trentham daughter’s names and that of their parents. Bea, who name didn’t echo either of her parents, was the only child who escaped the tragic consequences of neglect and debauchery and as an adult, live a functional life.

After finishing this book I’m keen to read and learn more about Sunday and John Reed and the group of artists who lived at their home at Heide in Melbourne during the 1930s. The property is now the Heide Museum of Modern Art. I’m planning a visit as soon as Melbourne comes out of these seemingly never-ending lockdowns.

Emily Bitto won The Stella Prize in 2015 with The Strays. The Stella Prize is an annual award given to a female Australian author. The prize itself was begun in 2013 to address the under-representation of female winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Both prizes are named for Australia’s Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, who wrote as Miles Franklin.

I thought The Strays was terrific.

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