Tag Archives: Australian fiction

The 22 Murders of Madison May: Max Barry

Last year, Max Barry’s novel Providence made my best-of-year list. Providence, a science fiction novel, follows a ship’s crew as it heads into the Violet Zone, deep space, as the battleship, on a search and destroy mission, hunts for Salamanders, a hostile race locked into a war in space with humans. Providence tackles big questions such as AI vs. human intelligence–both come with flaws. It’s been over a year since I read Providence and I still think about the book almost daily. Roll onto 2021, and it’s The 22 Murders of Madison May. When I first saw the name of Barry’s latest, the title seemed to have a playfulness to it–and I thought about that. ‘Murder’ isn’t playful at all, so the playful aspect comes from the name Madison May. The name is a bit stripper-ish, a bit actress-y.

The 22 Murders of Madison May is also science-fiction, a parallel universe novel. When the story opens, Madison May, a sweet, young real estate agent is about to show a home, a “dump.” Since she’s meeting the buyer, a man named Clay, alone, she takes his photo for “security.” Clay seems more interested in Madison than the house, and she begins to get bad vibes. There are horrible bite wounds on his arms, all in various stages of healing. He locks the doors, takes Madison’s phone and asks her to come into the bedroom to talk. Madison, who is a naturally perky person, decides that the best course of action is to humour Clay, at least until she can run, and after all, her office has Clay’s photo and all his information so “it would be crazy for Clay to do anything.

Once in the bedroom, Clay tells Madison that he’s traveled from another world just to see her.

“All this …” He gestured to … the room, the curtains? No, no: the world of course. “It’s a drop in the ocean. There are more worlds. More than you can count. They look the same but they’re not, not if you pay attention. And you’re in all of them. Everywhere I go, you’re doing different things. Every time I leave, it’s to find you again.”

That day, reporter Felicity Staples is asked to cover a murder. That’s not her usual beat, but since Levi, the paper’s crime reporter is out, Felicity goes to the crime scene. Real estate agent, Madison May is the murder victim, and outside of the taped crime scene a man and a woman stand watching. The crime scene is bloody, and “the drywall had been carved open with thick slashes. There were five angled prongs crossing a circle.” What do the marks mean?

Felicity discovers that the “insignia” carved into the wall is the same insignia on a cap worn by man who was outside of the crime scene when Felicity arrives, but the police don’t seem interested in her tip. A little amateur detective work on logos leads her to The Soft Horizon Juice Company. From this point, things don’t add up: there’s a man, named Hugo, who should be in Sing Sing for murdering his wife, walking the streets of Manhattan. Just what is The Soft Horizon Juice Company and how is it connected to Madison’s murder? After being shoved off of a subway platform, Felicity returns home but there’s something off…. . She’s still a reporter, her boyfriend is still tried-and-true Gavin, but there’s something not quite right:

She felt off-balance. There was something wrong and she couldn’t figure out what.

Felicity inadvertently becomes mixed up in the hunt for a serial killer, but unlike most serial killers, Clay travels to parallel universes to kill the same woman. Over and over again.

So that’s enough of the plot. Max Barry’s entertaining novel is mind-blowing for those of us who love or believe in parallel universe theory. This could be a grim read, but the author seeds this with light touches. Felicity’s boyfriend is slightly different in each universe; sometimes better, sometimes not. As Felicity steps into and adjusts to, her subsequent new lives, parallel universe travel brings up some moral questions.

“There’s no time travel. You’re in a physically different place. It shares an ancestor with where you’re from, but at some point it split. Since then, it evolved independently.”

“You’re saying there are two worlds? A real one and a … a secret–?”

“Many worlds. Detaching and refolding all the time. Nothing makes one more real than the other.”

“Parallel dimensions?she said, groping for a concept. “Is that what you’re saying?”

Another winner from Max Barry

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The Burning Island: Jock Serong

Jock Serong’s historical novel The Burning Island is narrated by Eliza Grayling, a 19th century Australian woman who has left the prospects of marriage behind. But in spite of not being married (and no children), she’s weighed down by responsibility to her drunken, blind father Joshua, a hermit who lives with rage and a burning desire for revenge. One day, at the marketplace, Eliza realises she’s being followed by Srinivas a man who’s looking for her father. Srinivas makes a proposal to Joshua: he will outfit a ship for a voyage to recover or discover the truth about the Howrah, a ship that disappeared along with its crew and passengers. It seems a strange task for an elderly, blind, drunk infirm man, but Srinivas has a bitter tale to tell. He suspects that the Howrah has been captured and sunk by Figge, a sinister figure in the Sydney Cove shipwreck. Joshua, as a “young lieutenant working as an aide to Governor Hunter” investigated the shipwreck and came to believe that Figge was responsible for the deaths of many of the survivors. Figge escaped before he could be brought to trial but since then Figge “was a tumour” in Joshua’s soul.

Srinivas, another survivor from the Sydney Cove shipwreck, claims that Figge has dogged him relentlessly over the years and, further, that every bad thing that has occurred in his life has somehow been orchestrated by Figge–a man who lurks near in the background and yet never shows himself. Srinivas argues that Joshua will be able to sniff out the truth about the missing ship and also be able to identify Figge if necessary.

Of course there so much wrong with this plan, but Joshua who is already in self-destructive mode fueled by a single minded drive for revenge agrees to go, and Eliza choses to accompany him on the trip.

The Burning Island is a rip-roaring adventure tale, but it’s not non-stop action. A great deal of the book’s focus is on the sea voyage and Serong’s evocative writing brings the wonder of the voyage to life. As expected, animals do not fare well in this tale and some sections were hard to read. As with many historical novels, there are some anachronisms, and Eliza’s character is somewhat unconvincing. There’s a captain who dresses in women’s clothes and I found this ridiculous, although it is explained later, and there’s a sleazy doctor on board the ship who seems a blend of Svengali and vivisectionist. The Great Reveal is screamingly obvious but then one of the book’s subthemes in blindness–literal and figurative. Finally, the sufferings of the aborigines under the guise of the steamroller of progress in well integrated into the tale.

Preservation concerns the Sydney Cove shipwreck and Joshua Grayling.

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Providence: Max Barry

“You don’t want a world of absent gods. You want meaning and purpose.”

It’s rare for me to follow an author’s career, but I make an exception with Max Barry. There are two reasons for this:

  • his books are excellent
  • he’s evolved as a writer (more of that later)

Barry’s first novel was Syrup (1999), the tale of a young man who dreams up a new soft drink–only to find that his friend, Sneaky Pete, has trademarked the formula.

Then came the brilliantly imaginative Jennifer Government (2003)–sci-fi territory here. The novel is set in a dystopian future with the world ruled by corporations.

Company (2006) followed next. In some ways, this was a return of Syrup–lots of humour and lots more corporate malfeasance–and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Machine Man (2011)–again a trip into the misty, harsh future. This is the story of a mechanical engineer who loses a leg in a work-related accident. One thing leads to another, and soon the engineer replaces all of this body parts with more efficient prostheses.

Lexicon (2013) delves into data collection and the annihilation of privacy with trained ‘persuaders’ who can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type.

And now Providence. I had this feeling that Barry was moving towards full-blown science fiction novel, and this is it. Makes my Best-of-Year list.

Providence

I’m going to say: think Alien on steroids. The novel begins with a team of four people preparing to head out into space in a three-mile long Providence battleship: their  four-year long mission is to encounter and destroy an alien race called Salamanders. As the newly formed crew prep for the mission–which is a huge social media event–the team members watch footage of the hair raising encounter between humans and aliens that started the war. …

You knew what you’d be watching today but you weren’t prepared for it to feel like this, like it’s wrong to be here. And wrong not only because you know what’s going to happen, and not even because there are four people who need your help and you can’t give it, but wrong like you’re intruding. They’re about the experience the worst moment of their lives, and you’ve come to watch it.

It’s an incredible beginning to an incredible book. The plot concerns the journey into space of the battleship and its hunt for Salamanders, and while there’s a lot of down time between alien encounters, the heart-pounding, nail-biting tension never lets up. We know that this ship is headed into something big and gradually it becomes apparent that not all the crew members are privy to certain information.

In some ways the crew members may appear to be cliches, but it all makes sense as the plot continues. Captain Jackson survived a notorious Salamander attack and was broken by the experience. Unable to adjust to civilian life, she’s hostile to AI and much more willing to put her faith in decisions made by humans. Then there’s Life Officer, Talia Beanfield, the most popular member of the crew with 311 million people “following the clips, and quips of Life Officer Talia Beanfield as transmitted from her Providence-class battleship in an undisclosed but, trust me, incredibly dangerous part of space.”

Anders, the Weapons Officer who appears to be a brainless jock, is a man whose transgressive behavior would seem to have negated his position on the crew, and this raises the question as to why AI selected him for the mission. Finally there’s the Intel specialist, civilian, Gilly who is perfectly comfortable with AI, and yet he’s still ambushed by the ship’s abilities. When it comes to destinations and encounters, the ship makes the decisions, and after one hard skip, they are in the fighting zone. Two years into the mission, with kills mounting, the ship takes another hard skip into the Violet Zone “an area devoid of beacons and relays.” There will be no contact with earth. It’s a “long time to go dark.

The realities and stresses of living on a space ship become evident over time. Life Officer Beanfield, who is privy to intelligence withheld from Gilly and Anders, is perhaps the best equipped emotionally to deal with the various emergencies and disasters that arise. Her intense training at Camp Zero, designed to motivate and manipulate the other crew members, involved playing various scenarios and role playing situations 

They’d told her back at Camp Zero: You will be the most important person on the ship and no one will know it. It was true. It was so true. 

Anders, the most volatile and unpredictable crew member, “couldn’t be left to his own devices. All his devices had built-in self-destructs.” Bored and frustrated by confinement and lack of relevance, seeking revenge for his brothers killed in the war, Anders goes into complete meltdown, wants to grab the guns and revert to destruction the only way he knows how. His actions have devastating consequences for the mission.

Gilly spends hours working on his theory that the aliens are learning from each encounter with the humans, only to realize that the ship’s AI system is way ahead of him. Gilly, who continues to hold firm to the idea that AI is superior to human intelligence, realizes that the ship will defend itself in unimagined ways. At one point in the novel, Beanfield and Gilly debate about the ship as an alternate life form. The Ship said “hello” when the crew boarded, and Gilly insists it’s a pre-programmed message, but as the mission continues, it becomes clear that the ship’s abilities are beyond human comprehension and therefore unpredictable.

Providence on one level is a story of man vs alien, but there’s a lot more at play here. The book examines the reliability and fallacies of both AI and human intelligence, while showing a war in which social media grants the crew members celebrity status which is pumped by edited transmissions back to home. It’s part reality TV for those at home and almost like a video game for those who think they operate the ship. Providence illustrates the place of human ingenuity in the world of AI; humans and AI share a fragile partnership.

One of the most marvelous things about this book is the way the crew members–all damaged in various ways–somehow manage to find what they are looking for, a sort of redemption. But as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for. This is both a gripping and a haunting read.

Absolutely brilliant. Providence is a spectacular, absorbing, relevant achievement.

Providence makes my Best-of-Year List

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Big Little Lies: Liane Moriarty

I watched season 1 of Big Little Lies, and while it was entertaining, there were a couple of things that bothered me. How could someone in Jane’s income bracket afford to live in affluent Monterey? And I couldn’t see Rich-Mos like Renata and Celeste making friends with Jane, so I decided to see how the book handled these troublesome details. The book, it turns out, is set in Australia. 

Big Little lies

But for those one or two people who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll start at the beginning. Big Little Lies (the book) is set in the coastal town of Pirriwee, and begins with some horrible event. At first it’s not clear what has happened but we are given clues through the narrative and also through a series of interviews with the police. It’s then we learn that a murder has occurred on Trivia Night–an annual fundraiser which takes place at the school. Murder at an elementary school fundraiser? It boggles the mind. (Well there was that cheerleading thing in Texas….). Then the book goes back in time to six months before Trivia Night and moves forward. 

The main gist of the story is the arrival in Pirriwee of Jane, a young single mother who has moved to this Australian coastal town with her 5 year old son Ziggy. On Orientation Day she meets Madeleine, the driven, outgoing alpha mother who’s married to Ed and has three children: 14-year-old Abigail (from a failed first marriage to Nathan). Fred and Chloe are her children with Ed.

All the trouble starts when Amabella, daughter of the wealthy Renata Klein says someone choked her, and then in front of the entire class, when prompted by the teacher, she points at Ziggy as the culprit. When school begins, Amabella is continually bullied, unobserved by the teachers, and one parent organizes a petition to boot Ziggy from the school. Opposing factions coalesce on the for/against side. 

While the furor surrounding Ziggy is ostensibly the main thrust here, it’s a segue into the lives and culture of the parents. Certain children are popular. “Walking into school with Chloe was like walking arriving with a golden ticket,” and those sort of status relationships continue into adulthood; Renata for example has Harper for a groupie. Main characters are Jane, Madeline, Renata, Celeste (a woman who seems to have it all),  and if we drop back a bit there’s Bonnie, Nathan’s new wife. As the plot unfolds, it’s clear that Jane isn’t ‘just’ a single mother–her child Ziggy is the result of an unsavory encounter Jane had with a stranger–an encounter which has permanently damaged her. 

The novel tackles the subject of female friendship and competitiveness. Renata and Madeline, who are complete opposites, are natural antagonists. You have to laugh at the mothers who organise a support group for “parents of gifted children.” And of course, the group rubs those who don’t belong the wrong way.

Madeline imagined them all sitting in a circle, wringing their hands while their eyes shone with secret pride.

For those who’ve seen the series (I’ve seen  series 1 & 2) there are some differences in the storylines. The book-version of Madeline is not as well off as she’s portrayed in the TV version, and her screen story is much more developed than in the book. I can see why Madeline’s screen story is developed as she’s a fantastic, witty, tart-mouthed character. Jane’s encounter with the father of Ziggy is also quite different. I’m not sure why the series version was altered from the book version–possibly because the book’s version of events is rather more complex.

Anyway, this was an entertaining read and my favorite sections concerned Madeline’s observations of Nathan and his new wife. It’s particularly galling for Madeline to see her ex Nathan and his second wife and their child at Pirriwee school. He walked out on Madeline when Abigail was a baby and provided no support. Now he appears to be a nauseatingly “upgraded version,” of a husband and father, going to Yoga, volunteering for the homeless. To Madeline, Bonnie who is into “yoga and chakras” and who probably gave “organic blow jobs,” doesn’t seem like a real person:

Even though she’d known Bonnie for years now, even though they’d had a hundred civil conversations, she still didn’t seem like a real person . She felt like a caricature to Madeline. It was impossible to imagine her doing anything normal. Was she ever grumpy? Did she ever yell? Fall about laughing? Eat too much? Drink too much? Call out for someone to bring her toilet paper? Lose her car keys? Was she ever just a human being? Did she ever stop talking in that creepy, singsong yoga teacher voice? 

While this may seem like a ‘beach read’ (and it is highly readable, btw) there are a lot of truisms here. Bullying, dominance, status, parenting and control are all examined here, and author Liane Moriarty knows how to weave suspense. When the book opens, it seems entirely possible that the violence on Trivia Night exploded between some of the mothers, and the tension between Renata’s supporters and Madeline’s supporters could certainly, plausibly, reach the level of violence, but for those of us who’ve seen the series, we know the violence has another root cause. 

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The Women in Black: Madeleine St John

“You Australians are mysterious people, no one would guess that this is a place where people can also suffer. It is the constant sunshine, it hides everything but itself.”

The Women in Black in Madeleine St John’s wonderful, tightly written novel are a handful of women who work in Sydney’s Goode’s Department Store. The novel is set in the 50s; the women who work at Goode’s are required to wear black dresses, and these are still the days of “frocks,” “model gowns,” spinsters, and WWII refugees floating up as flotsam and jetsam in Sydney’s society.

The women in black

The novel begins in November with two of the main characters: employees Mrs Patty Williams and Miss Fay Baines. Christmas is on the horizon and a young girl named Leslie Miles, who changes to her name to Lisa for her application to Goode’s, is employed for the busy Christmas and New Year’s seasons. Leslie/Lisa is a shy introverted, intelligent girl who has just taken her exit exams at school and who longs to go to university. The final main character is the glamorous Magda, “a Continental” from Slovenia, who takes Lisa under her wing, pays her attention, and introduces her to a wider, exotic world.

Both Patty Williams and Fay Baines have their private miseries and disappointments. Patty is married to Frank: a “bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Patty wants a child but that isn’t likely to happen as Frank is more interested in a night at the pub and a pint with his mates than sex with his wife.

Fay Baines is 28 and after a few unsatisfactory relationships with men, she’s come to a dead end in her life. She goes out at night with her friend Myra but Fay keeps meeting the same sort of men who want a good time and are not interested in marriage or a relationship.

Somehow the sight of Fay was not one that inspired thoughts about marriage, and this was grievous, for Fay wished for nothing else: which was natural, everything considered. Meanwhile men were forever getting the wrong idea

Then one night, Fay has an epiphany:

The fact was that Fay had had a dislocating experience on Saturday night: she had been at a party given by one of Myra’s cronies in a flat at Potts Point and she had suddenly, for no reason, become aware just before midnight that she was wasting her time: that she had in a sense met every one of the men there before, at every other party she had ever attended, and that she was tired of the whole futile merry-go-round: and what was worse than this, much, much worse, was that there was no other merry-go-round she could step onto

Over just a few weeks, amazing things happen in the lives of Patty, Fay and Lisa. Lisa, who comes from a narrow yet loving home, longs to be a poet, and is reading Anna Karenina. The book passes to Fay and she discovers that there’s more to life than parties and men who insist in groping her.

Women in Black explores the lives of a handful of women as they move to the next phases of their lives. Magda, her husband Stefan and his friend, Rudi, live in a parallel universe to their Australian acquaintances, and some of the book’s best scenes take place between these immigrants who, as they learn to adapt, have a great deal of ambition, and enthusiasm, combined with the outsiders’ view of Australian society:

“Give me you opinion of the cake, anyway,” said Rudi to Lisa. “I must say that in Melbourne, where I have been living so miserably, there are at least many better cakeshops than here”

“In Melbourne, they have more need of cake,” said Stefan, “having more or less nothing else.”

While the lives of Fay, Patty and Lisa are about to change, there’s the underlying idea that Lisa’s way forward is a change for Australian women in general. Lisa’s mother, another wonderful character, loves and supports her daughter, but the two females are subject to Mr. Miles who has yet to be convinced that it’s ‘worth’ spending the money to send a girl to university. The sea change for women is seen through the remark made by the “mysterious” Miss Jacobs, another employee of Goode’s.

A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation you know: you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or silly. , which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can: put their noses out of joint for them. It’s the best thing you could possibly do, you and all the clever girls in this city and the world.

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Honour & Other People’s Children: Helen Garner

Honour & Other People’s Children from Australian author Helen Garner presents two novellas about break ups.  Of the two stories, I much preferred Honour. Other People’s Children seemed to lack the focus of Honour, and while on the surface it sounded interesting (relationships between people in a shared house) the story lacked a sharp focus, and I couldn’t quite grasp a sense of the characters. 

Honour, on the other hand, is an good, albeit painful read. Kathleen and Frank are married, and have a child, Flo, together. They are amicably separated for years when one day, Frank abruptly asks for a divorce. He tells Kathleen that “it won’t be any different between us. Just on paper.” For her part, Kathleen asks “what’s put this into your head?” It’s not really a ‘what’ as much as a ‘who,’ and Frank rather weakly admits that it’s his girlfriend Jenny’s idea which rather sneakily puts this decision between the two women in Frank’s life while he shrugs off responsibility.

Frank’s decision to ask for a divorce … no, it’s Jenny’s idea right and Frank is just going with the flow, puts new tensions into the relationships between Kathleen, Frank and Jenny. This soon becomes apparent when Kathleen goes to Jenny’s home to pick up Flo and runs into Jenny. This is a first meeting.

They did not perceive their striking similarity; they both made emphatic gestures and grimaces in speech, stressed certain words ironically, cast their eyes aside in mid-sentence as if a sustained gaze might burn the listener. Around each of them quivered an aura of terrific restraint. If they both let go at once, they might blow each other out of the room. 

Trouble follows when Flo announces that she wants to live with Frank and Jenny. There’s one wonderful scene when Kathleen and Frank, with Jenny as the awkward third party, take a trip down memory lane with shared reminiscences. What follows is purely territorial with Frank and Kathleen excluding Jenny. I don’t know Jenny put up with it, but then payback comes later.

Divorce… I always laugh when people tell me they are going through an amicable divorce. They just haven’t got to the bad bit yet. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’ve just NEVER seen an amicable divorce. Perhaps they exist between reasonable people, and here in Honour, we see how these two women, forget Frank because he’s largely clueless, or at least pretends to be clueless, carve out their territory. Honour seems very real. Long term separated spouses are shaken up when a third person enters the equation and wants more. All the characters have to reconfigure their roles and some of the moves are petty, some are poignant and all are sad.

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Ballad of a Mad Girl: Vikki Wakefield

“I sometimes wonder if dreams are like dandelion seeds: once you blow them off they take root somewhere else, with somebody who still believes.”

In Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad for a Mad Girl, 17 year-old Grace Foley who, after the loss of the family farm, lives with her widowed father and brother in Swanston (“Swamptown”) Australia. Nothing has been the same since the death of Grace’s mother.  She was the glue that held the family together, and now Grace’s father seems unable to cope with his teenage daughter.

Grace attends school, and a rivalry exists between students from Swampie Public and the private Sacred Heart school. Swampie Public doesn’t have a library or a gym, and so they ‘share’ Sacred Heart’s facilities.

A solid, eight-foot wall separates Swanston Public and Sacred Heart. They made it arty by placing a thick Perspex panel every thirty metres or so, just to give the illusion that it’s all friendly, that we’re not segregated according to how much money our parents can afford to blow on our education. The wall keeps two castes of baboons from tearing each other apart.

This longstanding rivalry is manifested in many ways, but one of the most dangerous demonstrations of perceived superiority takes place in the local quarry when teens from both schools meet at night to compete. The dangerous goal: to straddle, shuffle or walk across a pipe that crosses the quarry, and if you slip, there’s a long fall to the quarry beneath. Grace is a Swampie Quarry champion, and when the book opens, although she’s grounded (again) she slips out of her house for another quarry challenge. This time, however, something goes horribly wrong. …

Ballad for a Mad Girl

After the failed challenge, Grace is different. Something happened to her when she sat on the pipe attempting to cross the quarry. She felt a presence, and she didn’t come home alone. Now something, someone dead, follows her, lives in the shadows of her room. Grace isn’t the same. Her friends shun her and Grace, finally, realises that the otherworldy presence, wants something from her.

Grace begins to poke around the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a girl named Hannah Holt, a girl who is rumoured to be buried somewhere in the quarry. Her search leads her away from her friends and back into the past, specifically to Hannah Holt’s room, still maintained as a shrine by Hannah’s reclusive mother.

Class, adolescence, peer pressure, loss, all add up to a mystery coming–of-age novel with supernatural elements, and the supernatural elements serve to produce that other problem of adolescence: alienation. Ballad of a Mad Girl is essentially a substantive YA book–not my usual read as I’m not the target audience. Still I appreciated the novel.

An entry in the reading Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Lovesong: Elizabeth Jolley

In Elizabeth Jolley’s darkly comic Lovesong  Dalton Foster has been “returned” to his former community. We know there are various officials involved in this ‘return’: some sort of rehabilitation centre, a prison, and “Grayhead” a prison officer. We also know that there’s been “repeated sessions of cure, rehabilitation it was called,” and that a “sentence and a cure in various institutions” have taken up half of Dalton’s life so far. So now, Dalton is back living in his old neighbourhood, just around the corner from his former home. There’s been some sort of arrangement, and he’s living in a drab boarding house, Mrs Porter’s Establishment “a Home away from Home for Homeless Gentlemen,” along with a motley assortment of lodgers: a completely potty piano teacher named Miss Mallow, Miss Emily Vales (who is always on the lookout for “Mr Right”), several painted young men who work as dancers in “the entertainment line,”  and two young men who live together–one a waiter with AIDS and TB and the other, a doorman who is “getting a bust.” 

lovesong

Dalton is alone, depressed, and let’s face: not all there.  He’s been offered a segue into so-called ‘normal life’ and society following his “cure,” through the patronage of a local family who happen to live in his old family home. He’s supposed to visit them upon occasion, but the mother, in loud telephone conversations to her sister, calls him the DP, the Displaced Person. During conditioning, the rehabilitation officer told Dalton about the need for “being sensible or being watchful,” yet Dalton is compulsively drawn to children. …

Life at Mrs Porter’s, “a houseful of discarded men and women,” is bizarre. It’s a “temple devoted to regret,” and there’s the spectacle of dear, departed Mr Porter’s hairball kept under a glass bell. Poor Dalton must wait for hours for the bathroom to be free, and he’s frequently pounced upon by the mad klepto Miss Mallow who repeatedly insists on showing him her incomprehensible references. Dalton is suspicious that Miss Vale, hunting for Mr Right, still recovering from thwarting an attempted kidnapping, is breaking into his room and reading his journals. Perhaps she is….

There’s a deep opacity to the novel. Things are seen through Dalton’s eyes, but he’s at best disturbed and damaged, at worst, deranged. He vacillates, unreliably, between the past and the present with flashes of his childhood, and it’s NOT a childhood that has been illuminated by later adult understanding.  The nomadic household was composed of his mother, his Aunt Dalton, and his father, named derisively Horsefly by his mother and aunt. What is going on between those two women as they shriek and intrigue, accompanied by the running joke that Horsefly is useless “The Excruciating Bore.”

“Like an officer’s boot, my dear,” Dalton’s mother screamed while they were dressing. “Like an officer’s thigh boot,” her voice intense with the pleasure of Aunt Dalton’s exquisite elegance resembling the handsome leg of a cossack, she said then, ‘”descending with virile intentions from his horse.” 

Dalton’s mother and Aunt refer mockingly to Horsefly as the Consul, but this is yet another way to humiliate the timid, gentle man who supports the family through hard, humiliating work.

“A Consul, yes” his mother would say, “but oh! why Trade of all things!” Her wailings were heard frequently from behind closed doors in either rented houses or the less fashionable hotels where they were often obliged to stay.

There are some sections which are notes taken on events within the boarding house, and in other sections depicting Mrs Porter and other guests, speech is written phonetically, so this may be a difficult novel for non-English readers.

I’ve read a few Elizabeth Jolley novels, and my favourite remains, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. Although we read blurbs of novels, reviews etc , it’s rare that we are unprepared for what’s inside the covers, but it’s always a wild ride with Elizabeth Jolley. There’s an eccentricity there that hovers dangerously close to madness. Jolley has a perceptive eye for irony, cruelty, and tragedy but laces it with human frailty and quirkiness. In Lovesong, it’s beyond eccentric, beyond quirky: it’s the Mad describing the Mad. Madness is the natural refuge for the human condition:

The last time he saw Aunt Dalton she was sitting up close to a horrible little plastic table banging a dish with a spoon and wearing a bib decorated with provocative slogans.

And kindness is the saving grace.

This novel is part of Lisa’s Elizabeth Jolley Week and also an entry in the Reading Australian Women Writers challenge.

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The Life to Come: Michelle de Kretzer

Michelle de Kretzer’s The Life to Come wasn’t a quick read. I found myself returning to it, reading it slowly. This wasn’t a fault of the book, but rather a need to chew things over, absorb what was happening. The story is broken into five sections which overlap as we follow Pippa Reynolds, an Australian writer, her friend Cassie, Cassie’s boyfriend, Sri-lankan/Scottish Ash, and translator Céleste who lives in Paris.  There are a handful of secondary characters who move in the same circle, people who belong and yet who don’t belong, people who are seeking something they can’t quite define.

This is a novel with multiple strands–a story that flows picking up and dropping off characters whose stories are continued later.  The novel opens in Australia in the late 90s with George who attends university, writes a novel at night and teaches tutorials for extra money. George would appear destined to be a main character (he isn’t), but then the plot circles its way to Pippa, a young woman who’s determined to be a writer.

The Life to Come

I suspect that many of us know Pippas. She’s not a bad person, but she’s shallow and thoughtless, and as the novel continues (where The Life to Come fits in) we see how she’s this nebulous self-construction, but at this point, she’s still young, working on her image:

George thought back to her essays: a stew of passionate opinion, mangled argument, atrocities of usage and grammar; that Credit had been the purest largesse on his part.

Pippa is never shy with her vacuous opinions:

“I love animals,” she went on.

“That must be why you eat so many of them,” said George. He didn’t intend unkindness but was opposed to illogic. Pippa’s fondness for broad, blurry statements twitched his nerves. “I love India,” she once announced, after watching a documentary on TV. She had never been there. George, who had, most certainly did not love India. He could also see that these declarations weren’t really about animals or India but about Pippa: what they proclaimed was her largeness of heart.

This is a circuitous narrative, with no clear central path (I’m reminded of Ali Smith’s Autumn) a panoramic frieze of various characters who inhabit the borders of Pippa’s life. Pippa’s friend Cassie lives with Ash, and while Cassie tries valiantly to please Ash with various Sri-lankan delights, she only, somewhat clumsily, manages to alienate him. These characters have flashes of insight regarding the future, and also retrospective moments when hazy incidents take on great significance. At one point, for example, Cassie, who loves Ash and works hard to build a life with him, even she “came close to seeing that he was only an instrument in her quest.”

Later in the novel, Pippa, further along in her self-invention project (at one point she sports a carefully angled beret) travels to Paris and meets Australian translator Céleste. Céleste, whose parents became inadvertently embroiled in Algerian politics in the 60s, is having an affair with the married Sabine, but it’s a hopeless affair based on use. But then isn’t that true of most of the relationships in this book?

There’s a quote which hits at the heart of the novel:

It had been explained to Ash that the government funded the Centre of Australian Literature after a ministerial survey of humanities graduates found that 86 percent of English majors had never read an Australian book. 

This is a novel that savagely bites at its characters while at the same time offering a sort of understanding and acceptance, as if the general human condition seems to be blundering through life, using others as they pass through our boundaries. Céleste notes that “Setting out from home, the Australians, like fortunate children, had expected to be loved,” but that the world, human nature, isn’t programmed that way.

Just as Pippa decides to become a writer before she has anything to write about, and Cassie ( a more sympathetic character) doesn’t, can’t understand Ash and his Sri Lankan experiences, things are right in front of our characters, and understanding eludes them. Yes, Australian English majors don’t read Australian books; they don’t read the very things that are in front of them, even as they pursue higher education, further knowledge, while that which is right in front of them remains ignored, of little interest, perhaps not worthy of attention. Similarly the characters here live, love and befriend other people, sharing the most intimate moments  and yet understanding eludes them. Even the title suggests looking forward, and while the plot propels us forward through the lives of its characters, there’s also the sense of these people wanting something more, waiting for what is yet to happen.

Review copy

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Filed under de Kretser Michelle, Fiction

The Restorer: Michael Sala

It’s the late 80s and competent, attractive nurse Maryanne is back living at her mother’s Sydney home along with her two children. We know that something must have gone horribly wrong in her marriage to Roy, but when he shows up, hat in hand, all humble and hopeful and tells Maryanne about this bargain of a house he’s found on the coast… she decides to go back to him. Maryanne’s mother doesn’t mince her words and neither does she tamper down her feelings. Meanwhile 14-year-old Freya isn’t thrilled to be leaving while 8 year-old Daniel just goes with the flow.

The house in Newcastle is a disappointment. Gutted after a fire started by squatters, the family have to camp out in a few rooms while Roy slowly restores the house. Maryanne gets a job at the hospital and so the family’s routine falls back into place, There’s a surge of sexual energy between Maryanne and Roy but there’s also underlying violence, and in the case of Maryanne and her husband, the two go hand in hand….

She’d always thought, always believed that if somehow they could learn how to handle it, then everything would fall into place, and all the risks and hardships would have been worth it.

While Maryanne comes to terms with the idea that it was a terrible mistake to return to Roy, Freya begins to run wild in Newcastle, and she makes friends with a local boy named Josh, an equally lost soul. Josh is one of several secondary characters whose lives collide with Freya and Maryanne; these are people who know that there’s something wrong in the household, but they can only offer limited help–in Josh’s case his help is limited by his own youth and inexperience. There’s also Maryanne’s neighbour who can only acknowledge and advise.

The scenes between Maryanne and Roy are chillingly real with escalating violence that will end one of two ways: violent sex or just plain violence. It’s a routine with an outcome which will be decided by Maryanne’s compliance. She knows shortly after she moves to Newcastle that she’s made a horrible mistake, that Roy hasn’t changed, will never change, and yet living back home with her mother was also an acknowledgement of defeat, “every conversation was loaded with allusions to Maryanne’s past failures-the drip, drip, drip of her commentary.” Living back at home with her mother had its own set of problems:

She’d stand and stare out at the streetlight half hidden by the leaves of the tree outside, listening to the formless roar of traffic on distant roads, trapped in her childhood bedroom like she was caught in some perverse winding back of her own life. 

It was terrifying, that sense of hurtling backwards. Sixteen years since that room had been hers. Sixteen years, and now here she was again, all of the struggle and failure behind her. The posters were gone, but her bed remained, and her desk, and there was still a bookcase beside the desk, though the books on it were no longer hers. The memories here were like a smell that you only noticed when you first came in.

This novel is a slow burner; the threat of violence permeates almost every page. Roy must be ‘jollied’ away from his obsessive controlling jealousy, and although it’s something the whole family understands, it’s never talked about. And while Maryanne tries, courageously (and misguidedly) to hold things together, in “the strange mixture of hope and suffering with which she lived her life, how she never gave up in anything even when it hurt her,” Freya encounters undercurrents of violence from young males at school.

It’s an interesting decision on the author’s part to make Freya the novel’s central character. Maryanne’s choices have already been made, but Freya’s path has yet to be determined. The Restorer, a haunting, troubling story, is essentially about male-female relationships and how violence can become an integral, toxic, component.  In one of the saddest moments of this novel, there’s a moment when Freya, unobserved  sees her mother at work:

There was something about Mum, her posture her voice, that same strangeness from before, when they’d walked together to her work. Like she was wearing a disguise-not now, but when she was home. Mum looked unburdened, younger, stronger.

I puzzled a bit over the title of Michael Salas’s book: The Restorer. On one level the restorer is Roy, a man who is restoring his house and supposedly his marriage, and yet far deeper than that, the restorer is a mechanism by which Freya will move beyond male-female violence, rejecting her parents’ model.

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Sala Michael