The latest addition to my website is Gerald Murnane‘s A Lifetime on Clouds. This book, Murnane’s second novel, is, quite simply, about the masturbatory fantasies of an Australian teenager living in the poorer part of Melbourne in the 1950s. Adrian Sherd lives with his parents and two younger brothers. About four times a week, he masturbates. His fantasies are based on Hollywood film stars, whose photos he has seen in The Argus, the paper his father takes for its sports coverage. Adrian has never seen these stars in films, as his Catholic parents will not allow him to see such films. He has a train set, whose tracks run on a large, crude map of the United States. He runs the train. Where the train stops is where he locates his fantasies, normally with three of these film stars. He shares these ideas with his schoolfriends, though many of them have seen the film stars at the cinema. He is worried about committing a mortal sin but not worried enough to stop masturbating and he regularly confesses his only sin. However, one day, at church, he sees a girl whom he nicknames Earth Angel. When he finds that she travels on the same train as she does, he makes sure that he is always in the same carriage as she is but is too shy to speak to her. However, his masturbatory fantasies stop. His fantasies are now wholesome fantasies about a Catholic life with the girl. Indeed, his Catholic fantasies go further. While this book is certainly amusing and well written and its mocking of teenage boys and Catholicism is entertaining, I do not share the enthusiasm for this book that others have. However, if teenage sexual angst is your thing, then this book may well work for you.
Category: Australia Page 2 of 3
The latest addition to my website is Gerald Murnane‘s Barley Patch. This is a superb work from one of Australia’s foremost novelists about the art of fiction. The anonymous narrator insists that it is a work of fiction but much of the book is about writing fiction and, in particular, about how images affect both the reader and the writer. The narrator is a former teacher of creative writing and a former author of fiction (he insists on using the term fiction, rather than novel or short story; he is a former writer, as he has given up writing fiction though this is clearly what he is doing in this book.) Referring to his early reading (which tended to be adult rather than children’s works) he shows how images affect him and how he recalls images from the relatively few books he has read that he recalls with pleasure, rather than recalling words or phrases. He insists that imagination does not play a part in his own writing, though readily admits that it does in the writing of others. Despite this somewhat disingenuous comment, he gives us stories and scenes he has recreated from life (even, as he insists, they are all fictitious) and, in particular, a long outline of a book he had been writing but abandoned, which is very much a work of imaginative fiction. Above all, however, this is about the writing life, about the art of fiction, about how life and fiction intertwine and about how images affect us, as readers, as writers and as people. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the art of fiction.
The latest addition to my website is Fiona McFarlane‘s Night Guest. This book is on the shortlist for the Australian Miles Franklin Award. It tells the story of Ruth, a seventy-five year old woman who lives alone in what had been the holiday home of her and her husband, Harry. Harry had died of a heart attack around a year previously. Ruth’s two grown-up sons live abroad – one in Hong Kong and the other in New Zealand. One day she gets a visitor – Frida Young – who says that she has been sent by the government to look after her. Initially, Frida only comes for a day but is very helpful, cleaning and making Ruth’s lunch. However, she starts coming for longer.
During this period, we learn about Ruth’s early life. Her parents were a doctor and nurse respectively but also very religious and they set up a clinic in Fiji, so Ruth passed most of her childhood there. As a young woman, she fell in love with a doctor who worked with her parents in the clinic – Robert Porter. As he kissed her once or twice, she was convinced it would lead to something but on the ship to Sydney, on which they travelled together, he told her that he was engaged to a Japanese widow and had kept quiet about it, so as not to offend Ruth and her parents. Though they kept in touch by Christmas card and postcards, they did not see each other again. However, Ruth now decides to get in touch with him again, as she has learned that his wife has died shortly before Harry. He comes and stays and she still feels a strong affection for him. This seems to be reciprocated, as he asks her to come and live with him. Ruth has had some mental issues – she continually imagines there is a tiger prowling around the house, as the two covers shown at left above and right indicate – so, as we start to wonder what Frida is doing and whether she is genuine, we are also aware that Ruth does imagine things and has also become very dependent on Frida. McFarlane gradually builds a story of Frida who seems to be very caring and helpful and for which she is either not getting paid or getting paid by the government, as she states, and Ruth who is increasingly dependent on Frida and feels a strong attachment to her. It is a well-told story that keeps us guessing to the end.
After a longer wait than usual, they have announced the shortlist for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. The fiction shortlist is:
A World of Other People, Steven Carroll (HarperCollins)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage Australia)
The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (Penguin: Hamish Hamilton)
Coal Creek, Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)
Belomor, Nicolas Rothwell (Text Publishing)
The only one I have read is the Flanagan which, of course, has already won the Man Booker Prize but, as I own all but the Carroll, I shall try and read at least one of the others as part of my reading of books from prize shortlists other than the Man Booker.
They have announced that Richard Flanagan‘s The Narrow Road to the Deep North has won this year’s Man Booker Prize. To my surprise, I have read the winner. It certainly was not a bad novel and well told and clearly helped exorcise both Flanagan’s demons and those of his father. However, I do not think it is a great novel, though it may well be better than the other five, none of which I have read. I have always had a bit of a problem with Flanagan. There seems to be something there but for me, he does not quite make it. I may read one or two of the others but certainly not anytime soon. I shall continue with my reading of books from the shortlists of other book prizes, where I hope to find something better.
The latest addition to my website is Richard Flanagan‘s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2014. The book concerns the construction of the Burma Railway by the Japanese, using forced labour, during World War II and tells the story of a contingent of Australian soldiers, who are made to suffer considerable brutality at the hands of the Japanese and their Korean guards. Flanagan spares us few details of the horrors. He focuses on the commanding officer of the contingent, a surgeon called Dorrigo Evans. We follow Dorrigo’s affair, while in training, with the wife of his uncle, even though he has a girlfriend, Ella. We also see Dorrigo’s life after the war. Indeed, in the present, he is seventy-seven years old and still cheating on the same woman, Ella, who is now his long-suffering wife. However, the book only really becomes interesting, in my view, when the war ends and we follow the lives of the survivors – Japanese, Australian and Korean – and how they struggle, all too often unsuccessfully, to adapt to normal life. The book receive considerable praise in Australia and while it certainly is not a bad book and the final part is excellent, I am not sure that it would make a worthy Man Booker Prize winner, though having read only one other on the longlist, I am probably not competent to judge.
The latest addition to my website is Tim Winton‘s Eyrie. While not his best, this is another fine novel from Winton. Tom Keely was a successful advocate for WildForce, an Australian environmental group that took on and beat businesses flouting environmental laws. But it all went sour, as did his marriage. He is now living on his dwindling savings in a high rise flat in Fremantle and drinking heavily. One day, he bumps into a woman of around his age with a young boy, who also lives in the block of flats. She recognises him and identifies herself as Gemma Buck. Tom’s parents were religious and his father, Neville, in particular, took it upon himself to help the downtrodden in the poor district where they lived, using his fists if necessary. Gemma’s father regularly abused her mother and, for a while, Gemma and her sister lived with the Keelys. She is now looking after her grandson, Kai, working stacking shelves in a supermarket, while, Carly, her daughter, is in prison for drugs and the boy’s father, Stewie, is not interested in his son. Tom had always wanted a child and, despite his own personal problems, he gradually, if somewhat reluctantly, becomes involved in the life of Gemma and Kai, though not without some difficulty. His own problems, Gemma’s problems, Kai’s uncertainty about life and Stewie’s need for money for his drug habit all combine to make things complicated for Tom, even with the help of his mother, Doris, now a widow, who continues her struggle for social justice.
The latest addition to my website is Hannah Kent‘s Burial Rites. Though Kent is Australian, this novel is set entirely in Iceland, where Kent spent some time. It tells the story, based on an actual historical incident, of the murder of two men at a remote farm. Three people have been arrested and found guilty of the crime. The story focuses on one of these three, one of the two women, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Agnes is thirty-four, single, and had been both the servant and lover of Natan Ketilsson, the owner of the farm and one of the two men murdered. Because there was no proper prison in the region, it has been decided that she will stay at the farm of Jón Jónsson, and his wife Margrét. The couple and their two adult daughters are not too happy about this but have to accept it. Agnes is brought to them in poor condition. She has been beaten, not allowed to wash, not been fed or even given anything to drink all day (the party arrives around midnight). Margrét, while opposed to her presence, shows a certain sympathy towards her, though expects her to work , which she does. We follow Agnes’ stay at the farm as well as her story, both in her thoughts as well her recounting of her tale to the priest who is caring for her soul during her last days, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson. We gradually learn what really happened but we also learn a lot about Agnes, who has had a hard life. She was illegitimate, disowned by her father and soon abandoned by her mother and has worked as a maid all her life. She is clearly an intelligent, conscientious, knowledgeable and diligent woman and, as Kent intends, we feel a certain amount of sympathy for her and for her plight, particularly when we learn the story of the murders. Kent tells her story very well and Agnes is a fascinating portrayal of a woman facing death. This novel is on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The latest addition to my website is Alexis Wright‘s Plains of Promise. It is about the (poor) treatment of aborigines, both now and in the 1950s. The first part is set in a mission in the north of the country, where the mother of seven year old Ivy Koopundi has just killed herself by dowsing herself in kerosene and setting herself alight. Ivy is one of the aborigines in the girls’ orphanage in the mission. When others follow the example of Ivy’s mother, Ivy is partially blamed saying that she is accursed or that her family has the sickness. She is abused by the other girls but also sexually abused by the white married director of the orphanage. We see her many years later when she is in an institution, unable or unwilling to speak, and then jump further ahead, where we meet her daughter, Mary, who has been adopted by a white family and is unaware of her antecedents till after her adoptive parents’ death. She then becomes involved in aboriginal politics. While certainly a polemical novel about the treatment of aborigines in Australia, it is also a well-told story, well worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is Rodney Hall‘s Yandilli trilogy. The trilogy consists of three novels, all set in the fictitious settlement of Yandilli, in New South Wales. The novels are set thirty years apart – with the first in 1838, the second in 1868 and the third in 1898. The first chronologically – The Second Bridegroom – though the second to be written and published, is narrated by a printer from the Isle of Man who, after his father is hanged for smuggling, tries to earn some money by forging a document produced by Caxton. He is arrested and initially sentenced to hang for theft but, when he is able to prove that it is a forgery, he is sentenced to transportation to Australia. He becomes the first white man to set foot in New South Wales and is able to escape his captors and is adopted by a tribe of aborigines. However, the tribe will soon come across the white settlers he has escaped from and there will be violent confrontation.
The second novel chronologically (the third to be written and published) – The Grisly Wife – tells of a group of women who look up to a male leader they call The Prophet. They emigrate to Australia (to Yandilli) to await the second coming of Christ. The story is narrated by Catherine Byrne, the wife of The Prophet. She contracts tuberculosis but recovers and also realises she is pregnant while her husband is absent. As she has not, as far as she is aware, had sex with him, she worries what he will think though suspects that she might be the second example of a virgin birth. When he returns from his travels with a German opera singer, she is concerned. The sect drifts apart, with murder and death its lot.
The final book, the first to be written – Captivity Captive – is based on the true story of the Gatton murders. It is narrated by Patrick Murphy, brother of the three victims. It tells the story of their upbringing with two physically large and tough parents and ten children as well as telling of the events leading up to the murders and the aftermath. Hall uses the real story and the real names as the basis for his story but tells a fictional account of what happened in the family – including their dark secret – and the details of the murders. All three are superbly told stories, with the first two narrated by narrators who are not alway coherent or reliable and the third told by a survivor fifty-eight years after the events he is describing. Sadly, this book is out of print, even in Australia.