Tag Archives: Australian fiction

The Little Hotel by Christina Stead

“Not to explain further, the Mayor began to do a striptease in order to dance an apache dance with Lola, although Lola told him over and over, and I believe this, that the male apache does not have to be naked to dance. She does a strip-tease at the club and ends her dance in nothing but a few beads, as my father used to say.”

Loitering over on Whispering Gums, I became inspired to try a Christina Stead novel, and for the occasion I selected The Little Hotel–mostly because I have a soft spot for stories set in sleazy boarding houses or hotels. These types of settings always throw diverse characters together in interesting ways, and that is certainly true in the very amusing novel, The Little Hotel, and while it’s not considered Christina Stead’s best work, it certainly convinced me to read more of this author.

the little hotelThe setting is a seedy Swiss pension post WWII, and various people have washed up at the Hotel Swiss-Touring which is ostensibly run by a husband and wife team. The husband’s real interest, however, may be a striptease dancer at the Zig-Zag club; he stays mostly in the background while all of the work is left to his patient, tolerant and long-suffering wife. The Hotel Swiss-Touring is almost the cheapest place to stay in the area and is priced only just above various lodgings for workmen. This alone dictates the type of guests and the attitudes of the staff, and that leaves the proprietor stuck in the middle negotiating as she tries to convince the guests to be more reasonable and the staff to not be quite so peevish and vindictive. The opening immediately illustrates how the proprietor becomes dragged in to the personal lives of the hotel guests:

If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself. I never knew whether she was divorced, widowed or separated. The first time, she talked about her son Gerard. Later, Gerard married. There was something; for she used to telephone from Geneva, crying and saying she had to talk to a friend. I was looking for a friend too.

The narrative goes back and forth from the proprietor’s first person narration to the third person as the novel follows the various relationships established between the guests who come and go. Given that the Hotel Swiss-Touring attracts a certain clientele, some of the guests are questionable, but there are also those living on a budget, and also some who’ve seen better days. Our sympathies are with the proprietor who has to juggle all the complaints, the pettiness, the quibbling, the eccentricities, and must wrestle with those who don’t want to pay their bills. If anyone who picks up this book had any romantic notions of starting a dreamy little B&B on the coast, then this book will probably annihilate that idea.

Since the guests of the hotel are out of their natural habitats, we can only suspect what their circumstances and positions in life really are. Some appear to be down on their luck, while others, putting on airs, express loudly that they are used to better accommodations. Most of the guests treat the hotel staff like servants. Miss Abbey-Chillard demands “invalid dishes” but expects them to be cheaper since she’s a vegetarian, while the Admiral, a particularly peevish elderly Englishwoman who is very cheap with the staff, makes peevish demands. This makes her unpopular and because she brings out the worst in the staff, they get their revenge in very subtle ways.

She was poor, yet she complained. She did not like it that the same woman who cleaned her room put her soup in front of her.

Much of the book’s focus is on the bad behaviour of the guests, and how that bad behaviour impacts the other guests and also the proprietor and her husband, Roger, who resorts to “spying,”  using hotel maintenance as an excuse for loitering outside doors and eavesdropping on guests. Many of the hotel guests are either long-term or repeat customers, and because some of these people more or less live at the Hotel Swiss-Touring, they establish relationships with each other. As the book continues, these relationships, rooted in propinquity, lead to  ‘friendships’ that are inherently false and laced with elements of nastiness. Madame Blaise, for example, a “very cunning” woman according to the proprietor, is ‘best friends’ with the British, very troubled  Mrs Trollope, who shares a room with her “cousin” Mr Wilkins. Mrs Trollope is desperate to maintain the fiction that they’re related, but everyone knows the truth. Mr Wilkins is from a middle-class Yorkshire family and is “snubbed and ignored by the resident English, even those drunk or in debt.” There is some underlying issue between the wealthy Madame Blaise and her physician husband who visits every weekend from Basel, and by the time the book concludes, we see Madame Blaise’s friendship for what it really is in a very funny episode when Mrs Trollope and Mr Wilkins host an anniversary dinner.

Then there’s the Mayor of B, obviously a complete lunatic who’s there to attend a clinic and receive shock treatments. He can only behave for a limited amount of time before he explodes into bad behaviour. The Mayor imagines that he see Germans everywhere, but he also wants to avoid Belgians.  One day he walks around the dining room shaking hands with all the guests, and the second day “he began to complain about Germans in the dining room, though there was no one there resembling a German.” Afraid of “germ contact with Germans” he insists on being served in his room. The Mayor makes frequent trips to France bringing back loads of champagne which he drinks with the staff, and the proprietor has to break up impromptu parties in the Mayor’s room where he’s “insisting” the staff stay, drink champagne and watch him do “balancing tricks.” He’s always submitting “memorandums” and numbered “Documents.” Then he begins writing on the towels:

If this is a sample of the towel you give guests in the Hotel Swiss-Touring (and his writing was arranged to take in the woven name, you see) it is no wonder that guests who are short of writing-paper use it; for there is no writing paper supplied in the Hotel Swiss-Touring; so that if guests want to write letters or complain about the GERMANS in the place, they will be sure to look for material and to write on the towels and tablecloths, so take notice. Signed the Mayor of B.

Even though the war is over, shock waves of the aftermath still rock the hotel residents. While the Mayor sees Germans everywhere, other guests are paranoid about the Russians. An elderly American guest advocates dropping the atom bomb on them and when the touchy subject of politics is raised starts shouting: “There are communists even in this country, in Switzerland. Why don’t you get busy and stand them all up against a wall.” Due to the war and the subsequent displacement, it’s not possible to tell if Madame Blaise is telling the truth about the millions she claims she’s fighting the banks for, and in the hotel environment, she could be just another storyteller. The proprietor suspects that Madame Blaise has “enemy alien” property belonging to a German “entrusted” to her. 

The Little Hotel is not a perfect novel. It suffers from a certain lack of focus, but in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed this social comedy very much for its spot on observations of human behaviour. Stead creates a microcosm in a hotel setting, and here we are in the cheapest hotel in the area with the hotel guests mostly behaving very badly. When they’re not complaining about each other, they’re complaining about the staff. It seems to be human nature to complain and pick fault simply because one can, but we also see temperamental staff members fight back in this chronicle of human nature.

I told Papa that nothing can be done when servants have made up their minds to get rid of someone. You see she gave no tips: she paid her ten per cent service, but nothing extra. The servants are very poor and need the little extra. As it is, on their days out, you will find them sitting each y himself eating a roll perhaps, on the seats along the promenade getting a little fresh air and waiting to go home to sleep. We do not feed them on their days out. Very often too they spend the day in bed, eating a little bread or fruit. You see most of the send money home to their families, and their families think of them as the rich ones. Well it is not the business of the guests to worry about that and not mine either; we must all live and eat, and out of the same pot. The way they see it is, there are people living in comfort, doing nothing and eating all day, who deny them a few extra pence. Yet I have seen them very kind to certain guests who do not pay extra; it is a question of luck and personality.

Christina Stead shows the layers of society within the hotel and the clashes of class and culture between the servants and the guests. We also see a world in flux: refugees, people who no longer have homes, collaborators who don’t want to return home, an affluent British couple terrified to return home due to the Labour Government, another who believes her money will only be safe with a dictator in control and people still broken and sensitive to the hostilities between nations.

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction

Lexicon by Max Barry

Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.

Back in 2002, I stumbled across the Australian author, Max Barry’s book Syrup. It was out of print at the time, but I snatched up several used copies and sent them to people who needed a good laugh. The feedback was unanimous, and Max made a few more fans. In 2003, he published Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel in which the planet has corporatized rather than globalized. Then came Company in 2006–a novel that returned to the humour to be found in skewering corporate culture. Machine Man in 2011 took us into science-fiction territory with a scientist who begins replacing his body parts with better, factory-made replacements. Max Barry’s novels mine society’s paranoias and the issue of individualism within a society/corporate structure that endorses, encourages and rewards conformity. And this brings me to 2103′s Lexicon, Max Barry’s fifth novel.

LexiconYou’d have to be deliberately avoiding the news not to hear/read recent stories about privacy. The battle for ‘Privacy’ is over, so we can shed a tear and feel a bit nostalgic. Privacy is a nebulous term, and anyone suspected of a crime loses that thin veil that kept their private life out of the public eye. Ok, so you’re not a criminal; these days with terrorism as the argument, we are all suspects. I’m thinking here about data mining and data collection: our phone conversations, our e-mails, anti-war protests, even our routines and habits:  Carnivore, Prism, NasrusInsightMagic Lantern, the MQ-9Reaper (great name btw). We live in fantastic times; it’s the sort of world imagined by Philip Dick.   Trust Max Barry to mine this rich field and produce a prescient, brilliant, intelligent, dystopian novel:  Lexicon: a nightmarish look at the ultimate privacy invasion–a book that pushes the boundaries of reality, and yet is so close, too close to an uncomfortable truth that the last frontier of privacy, the brain, is under assault. But we still have free will, don’t we?

The fact was, if you paid attention, people tried to persuade each other all the time. It was all they did.

And what if those persuaders had an unfair advantage, an incredible ability into the insights of your personality and decision making. What would happen if you could be persuaded to do anything?

Emily is a homeless 16 year old, hustling with cards on the street of San Francisco when she’s approached by a stranger who poses as a market researcher who claims he’s looking for “people who are persuasive and intransigent.” Emily accepts an offer to do “a round of tests,” and if she passes, she’ll attend a private school that teaches “persuasion.” The school, run by a shadowy organization, is a vetting ground for those with an exceptional talent for persuading others, and Emily is told this isn’t a regular school, the usual “government-run child farms” with a predictable curriculum. But neither is this school for salespeople; it’s something much more sinister:

She learned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was the order in which people optimally satisfied different types of desires (food-safety-love-status-enlightenment). She learned that leverage over people’s desire for knowledge was called informational social influence, while leverage over people’s desire to be liked was normative social influence. She learned that you could classify a person’s personality into one of 228 psychographic categories with a small number of well-directed questions plus observation, and this was called segmentation.

During Emily’s second year, she learns how to categorize people into types and identify which “persuasion techniques are more likely to work” on the various personalities. While learning how to identify types and manipulate other people, Emily is taught not to reveal anything about herself to others as personal information can open you to ‘persuasion.’ Graduates of the school are renamed and become “poets,” the most talented, gifted persuaders with an incredible ability to identity people by segmentation, and they are given a set of words that can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type. Naturally, for poets, desire is seen as a weakness and relationships are forbidden, and this is where Emily makes a mistake….

Alternating with Emily’s story is the story of Wil, an Australian who enters a bathroom and is sucked up in a battle for power between rival poet factions. Kidnapped by a poet named Eliot, Will is told that “eighteen months ago you survived something you shouldn’t have,” and that because he survived the incident at Broken Hill, a town declared a toxic disaster zone, he is an “outlier“–someone who is “immune” to segmentation and persuasion. Eliot believes that Wil, who has no memory of Broken Hill, holds essential, key information that will stop the power-grab of the much-feared rogue poet, Virginia Woolf.

Throughout the novel, Barry introduces conspiracy theories and various paranoias to fuel the tale, and the narrative is interspersed with forum comments, news articles, and various incidents that make the headlines

I’m not saying that there’s something here with this specific incident, but I see this ALL THE TIME. If you watch TV news, every story is like this: ‘There was a fire and the owner was in financial trouble.’ They’re not saying he burned down his own place. But that’s what they’re trying to tell you.

That bothers me because we think we’re being clever, putting the pieces together, but it’s a set-up. We’ve only been given pieces that fit together one way…..”

While I miss the humour of Company and Syrup, Lexicon is the most original book I’ve read this year. The novel is a brilliantly conceived novel of ideas that are fresh, bold and just imaginative enough to feed our concerns regarding the invasion of privacy. Towards the end, when the novel became pure chase & kill thriller, the plot seemed to lose control, but this may be an issue with my kindle version more than anything else as I was unsure of the timelines for some of the chapters.

It’s been interesting to watch Max Barry’s career over the years, and Lexicon is a fascinating entry in this unique writer’s oeuvre. Max Barry always surprises and he always delivers. Well done, Max. 

Review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Barry, Max, Fiction

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley

Last year when I posted a list of The Best of 2011, Gummie from Whispering Gums mentioned that she hoped I’d have an Australian category included in the Best of 2012. This seemed a good idea, so I’ve made a point to read a few Aussie books this year. While Tirra Lirra by the River is still the best Australian novel I’ve read this year, a serious challenge to that title appeared as I read and laughed at Elizabeth Jolley’s novel, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. I’ve read a couple of Jolley’s novels, and I considered them ok–nothing more, nothing less. Before Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a fan, but that all changed with this extremely funny, subversive novel that’s really a novel within a novel for Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is a marvellous example of metafiction.

So here’s the premise:

Miss Dorothy Peabody is a lonely middle-aged spinster who works an office job in London and scurries home every night to take care of her demanding, bedridden mother who has the uncanny ability to know whether or not the downstairs furniture has been dusted. Nothing much ever happens in Miss Peabody’s dreary life, and a daring act for Miss Peabody is to get into the lift and squeeze between the males with “Je Reviens of Worth Paris dabbed on her wrists and behind her ears.” Miss Peabody has a secret yen for romance, and as a people watcher she notes the lurid office affair between the married Mr Bains and Miss Truscott, embellishing the affair with her imagination. There’s only one bright element to Miss Peabody’s life, and that is her amazing correspondence with the Australian  novelist, Diana Hopewell.

After reading Diana’s novel, Angels on Horseback, Miss Peabody writes a fan letter, and to her astonishment, Diana replies. Soon a lively correspondence begins between the two women. Miss Peabody sends details of her life, work and her dreams, and Diana writes about her horses and her beautiful ranch in Australia. Diana is also writing a new novel, and she includes the latest installments for Miss Peabody, and through the correspondence, Miss Peabody is drawn into Diana’s story of Pine Heights, an exclusive boarding school for girls….

In Diana’s installments, she introduces the world Pine Heights–a boarding school which is managed on a tight budget by the idiosyncratic headmistress, stout, middle-aged Miss Thorne (picture an Aussie Miss Fritton from St Trinian’s). Miss Thorne, also known as Prickles, is a strange blend of conformity and radicalism. A proponent of an annual school bra-burning ceremony, she has little time for men and every year she enjoys an annual holiday in Europe with her current companion, the nervous, clingy Miss Edgely, and Miss Thorne’s long-term friend Miss Snowdon, a matron of Queen’s Hospital.

Both Miss Snowdon and Miss Thorne have the same kind of figure; a portliness brought on by years of responsibility, plenty of money, comfortable accommodation and good meals. Both women have the education, the background and the capabilities required for their positions. neither of them care too deeply for other human beings and they are not dangerously touched or moved by the human predicament.

Miss Edgely shares some of the qualities but, by contrast, is small. She has no taste and far less money.

Miss Peabody receives, via her correspondence with Diana, installments of the novel, so the delightfully funny Miss Peabody’s Inheritance goes back and forth between Miss Peabody’s personal life (which grows increasingly out of control) and Miss Thorne’s fictional trip to Europe.  In these installments, Miss Thorne, Miss Snowdon and Miss Edgeley make their annual Mecca to “the wine houses at Grinzing,” but this time, Miss Thorne elects to take schoolgirl Gwendaline (Gwenda) Manners along. Gwenda’s widower father recently re-married a young Brazilian woman, and after bouncing a cheque for Gwenda’s tuition and board, he more or less disappeared. Miss Thorne argues that a trip to Europe is just what Gwenda needs and that it will give her “a little finishing,” but is Miss Thorne really motivated by altruism or lust? Miss Edgely “all but smashed the place up” in a jealous rage at Gwenda’s inclusion in their annual holiday, and as the trip continues via installments to Miss Peabody, a disaster unfolds with unexpected consequences.

Over the course of the holiday, we see how the formidable Miss Thorne organises her relationships so that she’s always in charge, always has the upper hand and always gets what she wants. Poor boring Miss Edgely:

Somewhere between Vienna and Paris Miss Edgely gets left behind in a station lavatory, the novelist’s letter starts straight in without any enquiries or remarks of a personal nature.

“D’you think I’ve got time?” Miss Edgely asks.

“Oh, rather! Edge of course you have, but don’t be all day.” Miss Thorne notices that the guards are slamming the doors of the Express. All around them are the noises of departure. She knows Miss Edgeley has not really time. Whistles blow and flags wave.

As Miss Peabody continues to receive letters from Diana which include fragments of the adventures of Miss Thorne, she begins to live for the arrival of the next letter, and as she burrows deep in the lives of Diana’s fictional characters, Miss Peabody begins to lose her grip on reality.

Miss Peabody’s evenings had become another world. A world of magic and enchantment. She lived for the evenings and for the time spent with the novelist’s letters and the composing of her own replies.

All the different things her mother asked for hardly mattered. The petulant voice calling down the narrow stairs could not remove the anticipation of her happiness.

Miss Peabody’s correspondence with Diana serves to broaden her horizons and it also brings several titillating issues to the fore. For example, partly inspired by Miss Snowdon’s paper, The Forgotten Placenta, Miss Thorne hopes to organise a lecture at the school for the edification of the “gels” as she calls them: Chasing the Orgasm: How When and Where. This makes rather shocking reading for the very sheltered Miss Peabody, and the correspondence between Diana and Miss Peabody ultimately has startling results.

Often with novels that have a clear division (in this case the division is between the life of Miss Peabody and the letters from Diana), there is a range of quality, and one strain becomes stronger than another. Not so with Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. In fact the two strands come together and mesh extraordinarily well. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, is of course about loneliness, but it’s also about how little we human beings need to jettison our imaginations beyond our lowly, and often restrictive conditions.

Review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Jolley Elizabeth

Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street by Mark McShane

Fresh from reading Australian author Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I tracked down a copy of Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. This novel sets three very different characters on a collision course that will change their lives, and it reminded me of the work of Muriel Spark for the decidedly nasty edge to its humour.

The novel begins with Tom Brady, a shabby former Londoner and a rather disreputable character who now lives in Sydney. Tom has a checkered past which includes a long-distant stint as a policeman, but it’s been downhill from there. His last job as a night watchman ended 5 months before when he was caught sleeping. Now unemployed, he hangs about in the shops and watches people as a way to pass his time. Tom was married once:

love came into the life of Tom Brady. Or at any rate, during a period of indigence wherein he was unable to make his fortnightly visit to a King’s Cross prostitute, he met a girl from Brisbane who was game for anything, even marriage. They married and lived rather drearily in small furnished flats. The children which might have held them together did not come. They drifted apart without rancour, she returning to Brisbane, living with another man and bearing three children, of the last of which she died. The whole marital episode concerned Tom less than a change in jobs.

While Tom dawdles on the streets of Sydney, he runs into Jack Partridge, an affluent man who owns a profitable motorcycle repair shop. In just one second, Tom recognises Jack as a man he saw at the scene of a brutal murder that took place in London 30 years before.

Jack Partridge, unlike Tom Brady, has aged very well. Perhaps this is partially due to clean living and a lifetime of established good habits. Perhaps it’s also due to his affluence. So while Tom and Jack would seem to be opposites in many ways, Jack also has a strange approach to matrimony. He married the boss’s daughter, Mildred–a woman he did not love–who was the practical choice at the time.

So after setting up this initial brief, wordless encounter of recognition, author Mark McShane introduces his third main character, the delightful Janet Tree, a WWII widow who owns and operates a boarding house on Dimple Hill right opposite Jack Partridge’s home. And it’s to Mrs. Tree’s house that Tom Brady moves to in order to spy on Jack Partridge….

In order to supplement her widow’s pension and the income from her boarders, Mrs Tree engages in something she calls “free shopping,” and she plans her days around shoplifting excursions and trips to a local fence to sell her “unwanted birthday presents.” Here she is scoping out the first take of the day:

Mrs Tree turned into a covered arcade of shops, a window-sided tunnel full of the clattering and echoing of the feet on its tile floor. A number of shops were fronted by tables that held special bargains, which is to say, soiled articles that refused to move unless glamourized by the bargain mystique.

By one of these table Janet Tree stopped. A little hors d’oeuvre? she mused.

At the front were evening purses priced at three dollars, the foremost a packing-bloated skin of white sequins, like a pig in tight drag. Janet looked through the store window. There were two salesgirls, neither watching, one was busy applying make-up, the other stared at herself insolently in a mirror.

Forty-two-year-old Mrs. Tree is a nervous, high-strung woman. Plagued with fears that her knickers will fall down in public, she pins them firmly “fore and aft with large safety pins.” This irrational paranoia is of course part of her sexual repression, so along with the details of her throughly secure underwear are insights into her life–a life that would appear to be the epitome of boring, sterile respectability: an immaculate home and a horror of bodily functions. But then there’s her secret life and just what is her relationship with her fence, Mr. Becker? Does the private afternoon tea behind closed shutters lead to anything else?

Perhaps by this point, you can see the connection to Muriel Spark. Mrs. Tree could have stepped out of one of Spark’s novels and found herself in Mark McShane’s Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. Of course the boarding house connection helps. So the story is set in motion through a chance encounter on the streets of Sydney, and now the rest of the story plays out through its three main characters. Part of the story takes us back into Partridge’s past and his poisonous relationship with a rapacious, cruel femme fatale.

Apart from the denouement which I found a little unrealistic, I throughly enjoyed the book, loved the set-up and the three well-drawn main characters. Opportunistic former policeman Tom Brady and seemingly respectable widow Mrs Tree align against poor Partridge, and he’s arguably just as much a victim as he was 30 years before.

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McShane Mark

Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Mark McShane

“Myra was a sensitive, a medium, a para-normal. And a genuine one; she believed in what she did. She was a rarity among those of her profession, in that she didn’t have the usual curtained cabinet, or use trumpets, tambourines, guitars or any of the trappings synonymous with spiritualism; at her séances there were no table-movings, or raps or materializations; she didn’t even have a spirit control. But she understood why many sensitives, even highly gifted ones, employed all the fancywork; the public wanted a show, and even a medium has to live. But Myra couldn’t stoop to it, though she was sure that these manifestations sometimes had supranormal causation. She wanted no hint of charlatanism connected to her work. It was sacred to her.”

 Séance on a Wet Afternoon is the story of a middle-aged British psychic named Myra Savage who longs to be famous in her field. She holds séances three times a week in her modest home, and while these séances grant a “bare living” for Myra and her pliable husband, Bill, money is not the motivating force behind her desire for fame. Rather, she longs to become “established as a sensitive of the first order.” Although Myra holds séances, she doesn’t believe that she communicates with the dead. Instead she relies on her powers of telepathy–several instances of this are revealed over the course of the book, and she also believes in the existence of discarnate spirits. Once Myra becomes famous and respected in her field, she fully expects to be embraced by the other “sensitives” and perhaps cross “the bourne of nature.” Finally, she wishes to develop a relationship with an older para-normal, “one almost ready for the journey beyond the veil,” so that she may then later have an “entity” to contact “on the other side.” Whether or not readers share, or partially share Myra’s beliefs is really beside the point because that’s not the issue here. Instead the novel concerns a woman who’s prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get what she wants:  she’s about to commit a criminal act in order to achieve her goals.

When the story opens, Myra has concocted a plan that will make her famous, and for that plan, she pressures her asthmatic husband into becoming her accomplice. The plan is to kidnap a child of wealthy parents, issue a ransom note and for Myra to then make an appearance on the scene and announce the location of the child–through her psychic powers–to the worried parents, the press and to the police. According to Myra, this will catapult her to psychic success. And here’s the curious thing about Myra–while she refuses to “stoop” to cheap tricks in order to enhance her professional image, she’s perfectly ok, morally, with kidnapping a child and thus manufacturing an event that will supposedly reveal her psychic powers:

The fact that her reputation would rest on a fraud didn’t disturb her. It was cheating for an honourable end.

Myra’s intensity (bordering on fanaticism) combined with her twisted morality have made her a dangerous person. There are no limits to her burning desire for psychic fame, and on her own perhaps Myra would spin endless fantasies that die a natural death, but she browbeats her husband into becoming her accomplice and then she’s unleashed….

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a fascinating, unique read. Myra ultimately settles on crime as the solution for her desire for fame–just as bank robbers are driven to make the one ‘big score.’ In this sense, Myra isn’t so different from all the other people who dwell on their fantasies and then decide to take action to make those fantasies into reality through a criminal act.

On another level, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is the story of a marriage, and as the story plays out, it’s clear that Bill and Myra, pathetic people individually, make a toxic combination. With a husband, who was less complacent, Myra would be de-fanged; Bill, who’s clearly afraid to refuse Myra’s demands, empowers her insane ambitions, and make no mistake, Myra is insane. As the chapters unfold, Myra’s history is gradually revealed along with the significant psychic events of her youth and her past employment as a conjurer’s assistant, a clairvoyant’s aid, and a mind-reader’s assistant. It’s the introduction of the six-year-old kidnapped child into Myra and Bill’s household that highlights the true pathological nature of their marriage and their twisted thinking, for to Myra, the child is merely a means to an end–an object who exists to fulfill her greatest ambition.

While Myra is supremely confident about her plan, Bill is increasingly nervous and troubled, and here’s his twisted moral justification for the kidnapping diluted down from Myra’s arguments:

He hadn’t been able to concentrate, on anything, since the conception of the Plan. There was always a little worry nagging at the back of his mind. It wasn’t the implementation itself; he’d done the first of the two major jobs scheduled, and was so pleased with the way he’d succeeded that the fear of doing the second had been reduced; the rest was up to his wife. It wasn’t the rights and the wrongs of the scheme now;  although he had never in his life knowingly done a wrong thing, he condoned the illegal act because Myra said it was a means to an end that would benefit mankind, and he believed what Myra said; she also said it was only technically illegal, since they had no intentions of keeping the money and the child would be returned safely; she conceded that it was in a way morally wrong to abduct a child, but it was only for three or four days, and there was no question of ill-treatment; it was almost like a little holiday. 

For film fans, Séance on a Wet Afternoon was made into an incredible film directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Mysterious Press, via Open Road Media. Read on the kindle.

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McShane Mark

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

“On one of the little leggy tables stands a vase of yellow daisies. The vase is too big for them, and they have slipped down to water level with their poor little faces up-raised, like drowning people crying for help. But all the same, someone has taken the trouble to put them there.”

When I wrote by Best-of-2011 list, my Aussie mate, Gummie mentioned that she hoped I’d have a Best Australian category in my Best of 2012 list. It seemed to be a very reasonable request. This led me to Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson,  a book I saw mentioned on Gummie’s blog. Why did I pick this Australian book over many others I have on my shelf?  No easy answer to that one. Perhaps the selection was due partly to my annoyance at finding Anderson’s name mis-spelt as Andersen on several book sites. Whatever motivated me, I read the book and I am predicting that this one will make my Best-of-2012 list. In fact I can’t imagine reading an Australian book that surpasses this one.

At just a slim, yet dense, 141 pages, author Jessica Anderson distills down the life of one woman, Nora Porteous, into its most salient moments. Nora, now an elderly woman, returns home to Australia after an absence of many decades spent in England. Her childhood home, although empty, is essentially the same, but the neighbours–the faces from the past–are gone. As a young woman, Nora couldn’t wait to escape her home, and although she’s had her share of difficulties, she never wanted to return. After the horrors of a stifling marriage, she chose independence over security, but now at the end of her life, circumstances have brought her back to Australia, back to her now-empty childhood home and to the bitter-sweet memories which form the narrative of her life.

The novel begins with Nora’s arrival:

I arrive at the house wearing a suit-greyish, it doesn’t matter. It is wool because even in these sub-tropical places spring afternoons can be cold. I am wearing a plain felt hat with a brim, and my bi-focal spectacles with the chain attached. I am not wearing the gloves Fred gave me because I have left them in the car, but I don’t know that yet.

Stepping inside the house, Nora recalls her departure all those years ago, “running down the path to the yellow taxi,” waving goodbye to her mother and sister, Grace, while thinking “Thank heaven it’s over.” But now she’s back, on the last stretch of her life, back to the place she thought she’d never see again.  The novel goes back and forth between Nora’s memories and her present as she adjusts to her new-old life, and as her memories unfold we learn about Nora’s past. Mostly this is a novel about the complexities of memory–the things we choose to remember, the things we choose to forget and the narrative formed by these connecting memories. Some years disappear without a trace–memories melt into others, and then some memories are so bright and detailed, the distance of 10, 20, or 30 years seems nothing. Since the novel is written through Nora’s memories, the names she mentions don’t immediately fit into the frame, but gradually we learn about the important phases of Nora’s episodic life. She mentions “the household at number six” and a series of names (Hilda, Fred and Liza) of those who lived there, but something has gone wrong. The household “exploded” and Nora no longer has the sustaining friendships of those she lived with in London.

Nora’s life can be described by its distinct phases: the longing to leave home, a drab unhappy marriage, a career in England, and then old age. Her teenage years included ideas of romanticism and escape from home, but the ‘escape’ brought her only to a different sort of prison–life with her husband, lawyer, Colin  and her bête noire, Una, her disapproving mother-in-law. During their peculiar marriage, Colin steadily wears away any confidence Nora has, reminding her that she’s “frigid,”  and a disappointment. Gradually Nora drifts away from the lie that she’s happily married, even as she is attracted to the bohemian atmosphere generated by a group of artists. Here’s Nora asking her stuffy husband for an allowance:

Whether my submissiveness is ingrained or was implanted I do not know. I only know that all open aggression on my part, in whatever field, has always led me to sorrow and retreat. But beneath my renewed submission a sour rebellion lay. I was told there was no money for fares to the city. ‘We can think ourselves lucky,’ said Colin, ‘to have a roof over our heads, and food to eat.’

‘And besides,’ said Una, ‘when our local shops are having such a thin time, it’s them we should deal off, and not go traipsing into town all the time.’

I didn’t have a penny. I would certainly have tried to fiddle the housekeeping money, only, Colin now gave it to Nora Porteous.

‘It’s Mum’s house, after all.’

‘Yes, and I am sure Nora wouldn’t begrudge me handling the money in my own house.’

I asked for a small allowance, and Colin said he would think about it. A fortnight later I asked if he had thought about it.

‘Thought about what?’ he said to his shaving mirror.

‘My allowance.’

‘What allowance?’

‘You must remember.’

‘Must I?’ he was inclined to be humorous. ‘Well I don’t’

I went back to the beginning and made my request again. When I had finished he pulled his mouth awry to tauten the skin under the blade. A minute passed in silence except for the scrape of the razor. Then he leaned forward and looked intently into his own eyes.

‘But why bring that up when I am shaving?’

He was shaving, he was reading the newspaper, he was just about to turn on the wireless, he had to go out and mow the lawn, he must get his eight hours sleep.

‘Then when can we discuss it?’ I cried at last.

‘One day soon, don’t worry.’

But when I asked again, ‘one day soon’, he sighed heavily, folded his arms, and raised his eyes to the ceiling. In that attitude, he heard me out, and then rose and left the room without a word in reply. I lost my head, and followed him, and threw myself against his silence, railing.

‘If you’ll excuse me saying so,’ said Una Porteous, ‘you don’t know how to handle a man.’

Reduced to stealing coins from Colin’s pockets (he refuses to give her a penny of her own), she defiantly develops some significant friendships. Nora’s modest freedoms from surveillance are hard-won, and in some ways surprisingly meagre.

While Nora is a flawed human being, she is also genuinely delightful, and with Anderson’s skillful prose, we see not only Nora’s development and adventures, but also her quirky world view. Now in old age, she’s learned a few lessons that serve her well. For example, she recognises the patterns of her life and its “vile wastage”  and somewhat uncomfortably, she’s now temporarily at the mercy of housekeeper Lyn Wilmot, a woman who “disowns her arrow as soon as it reaches her mark” much the same as Una Porteous. Nora tartly notes:

It really is too bad that I should be afflicted with this reincarnation of Una Porteous.

But with the wisdom of age, Nora has learned to manage the Lyn Wilmots and the Unas of this world.

And then there are her memories and her past:

likened to a globe suspended in my head, and ever since the shocking realization  that waste is irretrievable, I have been careful not to let this globe spin to expose the nether side on which my marriage has left its multitude of images. This globe is as small as my forehead. Yet so huge that its surface is inscribed with thousands, no millions of images. It is miraculously suspended and will spin in response either to a deliberate turn or an accidental flick. The deliberate turns are meant to keep it in a soothing half-spin with certain chosen parts to the light, but I am not an utter coward, and I don’t mind inspecting some of the dark patches now and again. Only I like to manipulate the globe myself. I don’t like those accidental flicks. In fact, there are some I positively dread, and if I see one of these coming, I rush to forestall it, forcing the globe to steadiness so that once more it faces the right way. I have become so expert at this, so watchful and quick, that there is always a nether side to my globe, and on that side flickers and drifts my one-time husband–and, I have often thought, a very good place for him too.

Nora has memories that are extremely painful, so they remain on the “nether” side of her memory–the “globe” she has learned to control. By reducing Colin, an insufferable cold domestic tyrant of a husband, to a figure of fun, a great source of entertaining stories for friends, Nora effectively diminishes his impact on her and renders him impotent by making him a comical figure. At the same time, Nora remembers some of her own less than admirable behaviour while noting that as for Colin, “Perhaps the real man has been so overscored with laughter that he will never be retrieved.”  As the novel develops, we see that some memories are best left on the “nether” side of the “globe,” for to conjure them forth can be a devastating experience.

The Tirra Lirra of the title crops up early in the novel when Nora picks up an ancient book of poetry, and she still finds the marker left on an oft-read page that includes the lines from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. It’s impossible to miss the significance of the title as Nora can be compared to The Lady of Shalott, and while the two share some commonalities, Anderson never overworks the reference. Both The Lady of Shalott and Nora wait for life to happen, both spend their time on embroidery, and both of them have romantic notions. We know, of course, what happened to The Lady of Shalott, and if you wish to discover more of Nora’s elegiac yet ultimately triumphant reflections of life by reading Tirra Lirra by the River, a delightful, rich reading experience awaits…

Thanks Gummie

23 Comments

Filed under Anderson Jessica, Fiction

Moonlighting and Raving on Gummie’s blog

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan or Australian author, Max Barry. Gummie from Whispering Gums asked me to write a guest post about Max, so go here to read the article which includes links to reviews.

4 Comments

Filed under Barry, Max

Machine Man by Max Barry

As a long-term fan of Max Barry, I’m pimping his new book Machine Man. It’s the story of a lonely scientist, Charles Neumann who loses a leg in an accident. Unhappy with the clumsy, rudimentary capabilities of the prosthetic device, he embarks on a quest for improvement. If you are at all familiar with Max Barry’s novels, then you know to expect dark humour.

Anyway, the full review is here at Mostly Fiction

and SCORE!! for the interview go here

But here’s a quote from the book, one of my favourites that should have you either dashing to your local bookshop or putting the book in your virtual shopping cart.

This is Cassandra Cautery, from the company Better Future talking to Charles Neumann:

“I’m a middle manager,” she said. “Some people think that’s a pejorative, but I don’t. There are people above me who make business decisions and people below me who execute them and those people live in different realities. Very different. And my job is to bring them together. Mesh their realities. Sometimes they’re not completely compatible, and sometimes I don’t even understand how someone can live in the reality they do, but the point is I mesh them. I’m like a translator. Only more hands-on. And that’s what makes the company work. Middle managers, like me, meshing. So let me take a stab at your reality, Charlie. Do you know how much money there is in medical? A lot. And more every year, because you invent a better heart and it doesn’t matter how much it costs, people want it. because you’re selling them life.” She blinked.  “You’re selling them life.” She patted her jacket pockets. “I need a pen. But what’s the problem with medical? The market is limited to sick people. Imagine: you sink thirty million into developing the world’s greatest artery valve and someone goes and cures heart disease. It would be a disaster. not for the … not for the people obviously. I mean for the company. Financially. I mean this is the kind of business risk that makes people upstairs nervous about signing off on major capital investment.”

And here’s Charles meeting physical therapist, Dave:

Then came the physical therapist. The second he bounced in I realized I was back in gym class. He was fit and tan and wore a hospital polo shirt small enough that his biceps strained the seams. Tucked beneath one was a clipboard. The only thing missing was a whistle.

And finally here’s Max on Youtube with a preview of Machine Man:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEN10axDJtA

12 Comments

Filed under Barry, Max, Fiction

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower

The Watch Tower, from Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower is set in the years surrounding WWII. The story begins when sisters Laura and Clare are withdrawn from private boarding school by their self-focused mother, a British woman who’s never really adjusted to life in Australia. Stella Vaizey’s lack of adjustment probably isn’t made easier by the fact that she feels a bit let down by her husband. Dr. Vaizey died unexpectedly, and his death which seems the final proof  that he was “unreliable” has left his widow and two daughters in financial hardship. Both Laura and Clare must give up their ambitions for university, and after their large home is sold, they move to Manly, a suburb of Sydney. Here’s Stella Vaizey:

“I want you and Clare to take over from tomorrow morning, Miss Muffet.” Stella Vaizey lay back in bed and extended one small, beringed and manicured hand in a final relinquishing gesture. Propped against two pillows, smoking an Abdulla cigarette, she looked tolerantly at Clare, who sat on the dressing-table stool, leaning on her knees, plaits hanging, one navy-blue ribbon untied; and at Laura, who stood, back to the windows, assessing the strange bedroom and its furnishings with quick little glances. Laura hated that ‘Miss Muffet.’ It wasn’t well intended.

“You’re fixed up at your business college; Clare’s enrolled at her school, and they’re both within walking distance. You know where the shops are, and the beach is at the bottom of the hill, so you’ve got nothing to complain about, have you?”

She was crossing them off her list!

“And now that everything’s settled, I’m going to expect you both to take some responsibility. I’m very tired. I’ve had a busy, upsetting time with that oaf of a solicitor bungling everything and selling the house. It’s been a great-” her eyes filled with tears. She sneezed, and sneezed again, and groaned luxuriously as if to say, ‘There! You can see for yourselves how ill-treated I’ve been.’

Laura finishes business school and then gets a job at a company owned by industrious bachelor Felix Shaw. With WWII gathering momentum, Stella Vaizey longs to return to her old crowd in England, and it seems nothing less than fortuitous when Felix proposes to Laura. He even buys a large, impressive house and agrees to take in Clare too. This is the liberation Stella has been waiting for, and gently, subtly, Laura is eased into marriage.

But Felix Shaw isn’t quite what he seems, and as his business interests fluctuate, both Laura and Clare pay the penalties for his erratic decisions. Gradually Felix’s dark side emerges….

The Felix Shaws of this world have an innate ability to identify and capture the vulnerable women who have the misfortune to enter their sphere of acquaintance. At first The Watch Tower seems to be Laura’s story, but as the plot develops, the story is Clare’s. Clare has the choice of remaining with Laura as a powerless witness of a hellish marriage or she can break free and abandon her sister.

The Watch Tower does an excellent job of creating its three main characters and gradually building the details of the domestic tyranny endured by Laura and Clare. Domestic abusers and marital tyrants are skilled at creating false worlds and then imprisoning their victims within those invisible walls. So true to form, Felix remains well-respected by others while at home he’s a monster. There are hints of Felix’s repressed homosexuality, and certainly he values his relationships with other males while his relationship with Laura and Clare is infused with hatred and loathing. Often Felix appears to bait Laura and Clare:

“Months ago they had learned that there was no defence but silence, and that was no defence. He did so enjoy cajoling them into speech, but he had been known to be provoked to the very edge of violence by the sound of an answering voice. Not that he minded being brought to the edge of violence.”

 All these details are well-developed and believable, and Felix’s gradual transformation occurs as he isolates the sisters first from the world and then from each other.

On a personal level, I find it difficult to read novels in which characters are acted upon–endlessly. I wanted someone to do something in this novel, so I became frustrated with the female characters as they continued to soak up Felix’s behaviour and escaling violence. That criticism voiced, I realise that that is the whole point of the story. These women take it because a) they have few other choices and b) it becomes ‘normal.’

In spite of the novel’s painful subject matter–the destruction of one human being by another, the plot does not wallow in emotion, and much of the drama remains delicately understated. There’s not a great deal of introspection here as people carry on and pretend everything is perfectly normal even when it’s quite clear that it’s not.  For its exploration of the relationship between sisters, the sacrifices of 1940s women who are forced by circumstance to drop dreams of education for the terrors of becoming one man’s cooks, cleaners, and general factotums, then this could be a classic feminist text along with titles such as Mrs. Caliban (Rachel Ingalls) and Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson).

The brief bio notes at the front of the book state that Harrower was born in 1928 in Sydney, lived in London in the 50s, and then returned to Australia. The Watch Tower was published in 1966. It’s a somewhat unfortunate title as a search yields a lot of religious material.

12 Comments

Filed under Harrower Elizabeth

Max Barry–one of my favourite Australians

When I checked my e-mail this morning, there was a very funny note from Australian author, Max Barry sitting in my inbox. No, I don’t know him personally, but a few years ago, I did sign up via his website to get Max by e-mail. I’ve read all of Max’s novels–not that there have been that many. In fact there haven’t been enough. To date: Syrup, Company, and Jennifer Government. There’s also Machine Man–a serial written by Max which appeared a page a day on his website. Well to be honest five pages a week as to quote Max: “because I need a break, man.” To give you the details, up to page 43 is free and then after that to continue the subscription costs $6.95.

Anyway, this is just one of the reasons that I like Max Barry because he thinks outside of the friggin box.

Another reason I like Max is his sense of humour, of course, and his latest e-mail did cheer me up this morning. It’s a wonderful idea for authors to have their own blogs, and Max Barry is a perfect example of how much one author can do with a simple website. He’s built quite a fan base, he connects directly with his readers, and he’s one of the plebs. There is no snobbery and no patronising here. Just Max going through life pretty much the same way we do. 

Max’s latest e-mail, complete with his trademark unassuming humour, announced another baby on the way. Congrats Max. Keep those e-mails coming.

4 Comments

Filed under Barry, Max