Tag Archives: Australian fiction

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop: Amy Witting

“You can get to be like those prisoners who don’t want to leave gaol.”

Earlier this year, I read and loved Amy Witting’s novel I for Isobel, a novel with a oddly-childlike title that did this clever, subtle book no favours. The novel begins with Isobel in miserable childhood, follows her through early years into troubled adulthood and ended somewhat optimistically with the idea that perhaps Isobel would heal and overcome her emotional problems. This brings me to Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop, the second Isobel novel–another book with a curiously childlike title which in no way mirrors the book’s subtle emotional exploration of the main character’s inner life.

Isobel on the Way to the Comer Shop, finds Isobel in terrible straits. She’s unemployed (for that story, read I for Isobel,) working temp jobs for a pittance, and living in a squalid boarding house. But it’s not all bad news. She’s managed to have a story published so those literary ambitions are beginning to pay off. But when you’re living on the edge of poverty, cold, depressed and ill, those conditions aren’t conducive to the creative spirit. The book opens with Isobel in her attic room facing a typewriter, living off baked bean sandwiches, and asking herself how she can write about love when “her own researches into the matter had been disastrous.” Unable to solve or understand the complications of love and sex and just how the two are connected, Isobel takes off for a ‘literary evening’ where she’s clearly unwelcome, and with growing paranoia that may be a descent into madness, she cruelly rejects the kindness of a young male friend. A few days later, close to starvation she decides to make a trip to the corner shop but never arrives….

Isobel on the way to the corner shopIsobel is diagnosed with TB and ends up in at Mornington Sanatorium where she, and scores of other patients, undergo months of treatment. Chronic illness peels back the patina of the social self, and leaves, exposed, our true natures, so there are compliant patients, willful patients, and difficult patients all tossed together with the same diagnosis, in the same institution. Some patients wallow in self pity and peevishness while others, and Isobel is one of these, emerge from the crucible of illness, much better human beings for the experience.

At first, probed and examined, an unwanted, contagious patient in a general hospital, Isobel feels like a “parcel. Parcels can be opened and inspected,” but eventually, for the first time in her life, she learns to accept acts of kindness. This begins with the kindness of a volunteer worker, continues with various staff members from the sanatorium and a visit from someone from her past hammers home the lesson that she does matter to people.

She had taken for granted always that when she closed a door behind her, she disappeared entirely from the minds of those behind it. That this was not so was disconcerting: it created a responsibility she did not wish to bear.

There’s a poignancy lingering in Isobel’s story–here’s a young woman who’s never felt that she mattered to anyone, with no loving relationships in her life, she feels valueless, and what irony that it takes a diagnosis of TB in order for Isobel to finally accept that people care about her. Stuck in forced confinement in a hospital bed, she can no longer retreat into her shabby attic, and she’s forced to observe and confront relationships she has with various patients and staff members.

While Isobel is at the sanatorium to cure her body of TB, her confinement and its “enforced intimacy,” effectively brings an emotional cure, and this is partly due to sharing a room with Val, a peevish unpleasant woman, who, in spite of her glaring character deficiencies, receives constant visits from her long-suffering husband, Geoff and daughter, Pauline. Val is oblivious to her own behaviour, but nonetheless makes a canny observation regarding a nurse and her relationship with a patient’s husband. Isobel finds it curious that “Val, who could hunt down unhappy lovers with whom she had no connection, did not seem to notice the” feelings of others. Isobel’s relationship with Val, whose random peevish cruelty, is a faint echo of the behaviour of Isobel’s mother becomes both the bane of her existence and a hurdle for emotional healing. Val’s inchoate frustration with Isobel begins when Isobel starts a knitting project to help pass the time during enforced bed rest. Val takes umbrage at Isobel’s choice of wool, and frustrated and miserable beyond all reason, she won’t let the subject rest:

Is it possible to cause so much misery to another human being, simply by being  oneself? she wondered, feeling a reflection of that misery. No help for it; she must continue to be herself. 

Isobel accepts that she’s an emotional ‘illiterate,’ but to do something about that means taking risks “stepp[ing] out in space,” and not clinging to the safe and familiar. The Sanatorium becomes a refuge for many patients who’ve chosen to remain there and work, and as Isobel becomes more comfortable at the sanatorium and forms relationships with a host of highly memorable characters, she has a difficult choice to make…

In the book’s introduction, Maria Takolander writes that for Witting the “Isobel novels were autobiographical, that it was the ‘terrible truth of fiction’ which helped her ‘to conquer the truth of that situation.’ “ So it should come as no surprise to learn that Witting (Joan Austral Fraser) suffered from TB at one point in her life and drew from these experiences when writing this book. If you are at all interested reading Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop which is going to make my best-of-year list, you read I for Isobel first. Sadly, there’s a third Isobel novel that Witting did not finish before her death.

Review copy/own a copy

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Witting Amy

The Refuge: A Confession by Kenneth Mackenzie

This thought brought my mind back to the vision of night stretching ahead, as certain and as mysterious as a wet and unknown road stretching beyond the delimiting headlights of a car driven by a stranger. It led somewhere”

Kenneth Mackenzie’s novel The Refuge, set in post WWII Sydney, is narrated by middle-aged crime reporter Lloyd Fitzherbert who is working late one evening, reluctant to go home because he’s expecting a call from the police regarding a body that will be found in the harbour. While the body will be identified and thought a suicide, Fitzherbert knows the truth; as the murderer, post crime, pre-discovery of the body, he tells us he “had waited for that hour, with, as I thought, no feelings whatever.” Fitzherbert with cold calculation, has murdered a young woman he loved named Irma–a refugee from war-torn Europe who sought ‘refuge’ in Australia. Recalling the crime, he “felt again the terrible emotion of triumph mixed with and outweighed by black and utter despair.”

The RefugeThere’s no small amount of irony that Irma, a very slippery, beautiful and exotic young woman who joined both the Communist and the Nazi parties pre-WWII, making deadly enemies of both, should find a different type of final ‘refuge’ in an Australia which proves to be more deadly than the Communist agents that pursue her. This is a tale of an unhealthy bond between two people who appear to be in perfect control of their emotions, and yet when it comes to passion and love, there is something dead or missing in both Fitzherbert and Irma’s emotional make-up. He’s opted, after the tragically early death of his wife, to lead an emotionally sterile life and devote himself to his only son, Alan, who’s raised by his grandmother. Fitzherbert carefully maintains a distance from his son, but his devotion towards him includes morbid thoughts. Here he worries about 8 year-old Alan  growing up in a world at war:

how profound had become my mistrust of a world in which wars could still come into evil flower, and in which individuals could play with and brutally alter the myriad personal fates of whole nations of men and women. In such a world I thought I could find plenty of cause to be concerned for Alan; in such an insane, dangerous world, where the very soul, unawares, was vulnerable, I could impersonally imagine a father willingly and painlessly ending the life of a son before that life should fade and fray into the common background pattern of greedy passions and deliberate violence which is also the pattern of inevitable self-destruction.

Irma, part of the chaotic detritus of pre-WWII Europe floats into Fitzherbert’s sterile existence and he falls in love with her. Irma is a very young woman who’s led a life using her body for political gain and also for survival. When she meets Fitzherbert, he’s the next male stepping stone, and while common sense should tell him to tread cautiously, there’s a magnetic attraction which he cannot resist even though he’s initially repelled:

What I did feel was a sense of shock and disappointment, that so much youth and vitality and feminine beauty should have been so well-schooled in the mouthing of spiritless clichés; for I could not then and cannot now believe that the passion for their maggot-eaten homelands which these people so readily put into words is a real passion of body and mind and spirit, and not largely a guileful parade of perfected artifice. What I did believe is that they were profoundly glad Australia did exist and was there unguarded for their exploitation.

The Refuge is Fitzherbert’s confession, and that leaves the reader as the judge and jury. The tale moves backwards from the discovery of Irma’s body, back ten years before when Fitzherbert met Irma for the first time and, as her savior of the hour, became involved in her life. Neither Fitzherbert nor Irma are particularly sympathetic or attractive characters, and once involved, it’s clear that they are both out of their depth. In spite of warning signals, Fitzherbert plunges deep into this relationship with a much young woman who trades her body for favours, and Irma treads dangerous waters when she begins a relationship with Fitzherbert, a type of man she’s never known before.

In the introduction, Nicholas Rothwell addresses the novel’s flaws and asks, “Can a work of genius, a masterwork–a classic–be imperfect, flawed in its essence? Can a great book be made from unbalanced or ill-fitting parts, and can those flaws and quirks actually be the crux of its strength?” These are good questions which ultimately, each reader will ask as they read The Refuge. It is a stunning book, full of the most incredibly beautifully written sections in which Fitzherbert’s lonely, painful observations ooze through the pages. While I found myself highlighting quote after marvelous quote, I also experienced no small amount of frustration with Fitzherbert’s wordy, unfocused confession/justification of his crime. In the final judgment, however, the power of Mackenzie’s heart stopping writing overrides the novel’s flaws, and his narrator’s meandering approach towards his confession grants insight, arguably more than Fitzherbert intended.

The novel’s structure is unusual–presenting a crime committed by the narrator who then proceeds to languidly detail select parts of the ten years before the murder and the events that led up to this act. Fitzherbert is in no hurry to wind up his tale, so, for example, he’ll spend pages describing the structure of his son’s face, and pages recalling discussions he had with a workmate–although that may seem to have little to do with the tale. But Fitzherbert is telling his tale his way, and explaining, with painfully long detail at times, his emotional justification for his crime. Fitzherbert’s idiosyncratic method of telling his story allows the reader glimpses inside the mind of obsessive man whose morbid thoughts dominate his actions. Fitzherbert methodically builds his case that his actions are justified and ultimately the only option available, but the reader knows that that simply isn’t true. Of course, one intriguing question must be asked: Is Fitzherbert, always in control of the narrative, as honest with himself as he appears to be? When the book opens, he presents himself as a man who has adjusted to the brutal nature of the world, but there are some vital components missing, and this absence floats to the surface when he falls into a one-sided love affair with Irma:

No one would describe me as a nervous man. Years of police reporting give necessary control of all emotion, not merely a command of the show of it. I have seen men hanged, and the raped and mutilated bodies of young women, and children’s bodies that fire has burned, and drowned people on whom fish have been feeding; and for such sights great calmness of spirit is essential One does not even allow an inward weeping for pity, or for shame at being oneself a man. One looks, and makes notes, and forgets. Nervousness does not come into it.

Rothwell describes The Refuge as a tragedy, and if we accept it as such, then Mackenzie’s approach to what may seem like a crime novel, makes much more sense. Fitzherbert is a murderer–an Othello without Iago, and he’s murdered the woman he loves. Now, in the lonely post-mortem of his crime, he explains and dominates the back story of the rocky, fateful path that led, inevitably, to this point.

Review copy/own a copy

17 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Mackenzie Kenneth

The Catherine Wheel: Elizabeth Harrower

In Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, The Catherine Wheel, it’s the 1950s, and twenty-five-year-old Clemency James is an Australian lodger living in a grim London boarding house belonging to spiritualist landlady, Miss Evans. Clem’s tiny, bleak attic room has “a diagonal view of bare black avenues and paths and empty seats and grass,” but in spite of the room’s lack of appeal, to Clem, the space represents her “square yards of freedom.” That freedom is about to be swept away when a peculiar couple insinuate themselves into Clem’s life.

Clemency earns a marginal living teaching French to private students while she studies, by correspondence, to be a lawyer. With her father dead, her stepmother, Mimi, back in Australia, and a small legacy to help her survive, Clemency doesn’t have much time for frivolity–in fact she’s on a treadmill alternating between teaching and studying. There’s little to no fun in between, and so perhaps that makes her vulnerable.

The Catherine wheelChristian Roland,  a very good-looking young man, is first introduced to Clem as the new window cleaner, and soon he and Olive, a much older woman he calls his wife, are well established features in the building. Before long, Christian, by using a suave combination of guilt and pressure, manipulates Clem into giving him free French lessons. At first Clem, who already resents teaching and “the draining off of that much energy–but [I] needed the money,” resists and while there are hints that she could give free lessons, Clem initially responds negatively:

And where was the obligation to be heart and soul with everyone who importuned attention? And, really, was graciousness my aim in life?

Christian and Olive make a strange couple. He’s a former actor, strikingly good-looking, with a history of finding a series of women to ‘take care of him’ whereas Olive is much a much older, plain, “large round shouldered woman” who initially treats Clem with embarrassing and unnecessary obsequiousness. There are moments when Clem receives warning signals about Christian and yet these moments fade and then vanish as she’s swept up by his relentless pursuit and charismatic personality. Gradually, Clem is seduced, mesmerized, manipulated, and beguiled into Christian’s chaotic world of poverty, debts, endless menial jobs, drunken binges, and violent arguments. And as Christian slowly dismantles Clem’s defenses, Olive becomes violently jealous of Christian’s relationship with Clem–or so he claims. Yet since Christian loves being in the position of having women fighting for him, and since he is constantly acting a role with himself as the star, it’s impossible to tell just where the truth ends and the lies begin.

Christian, who has a massive chip on his shoulder about class, money and the standard of living he thinks he’s entitled to, is out for what he can get from Clem. There’s the sense that his goal is to overcome Clem’s reservations about his character with conquest as pure ego gratification. Occasionally Clem wavers between fascination and revulsion yet gradually melts under the constant assault of his dominant, narcissistic personality:

I felt myself withdraw, withdraw mentally, from his proximity, I didn’t like him! All at once his earnest pleasure in himself was alarming.

‘Then after they’ve asked me to do their income-tax returns–one actually did the other day–they tell me how poor they are. They get out the old purse and try to kid me along. Can’t afford! They can’t bend their fingers for diamonds some of these old bags!’

As a student of the theatre, I saluted him. As a student of human nature I felt an unprecedented inclination to come down heavily on both sides at once. He was awful! Why did it seem irrelevant?

As Clem becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of Christian and Olive, she isn’t always honest with herself. She’s not honest about her motives for ‘helping’ Christian, and as she sinks deeper and deeper into his delusional, volatile, narcissistic web, her friends become alarmed only to find that they are powerless to help her. Clem sees Christian, with “his bitter, private, despairing intensity,” as noble and someone who deserves a chance. Everyone else sees Christian for exactly what he is–trouble, a user and destroyer of any woman foolish enough to get involved with him. Christian lives in a world in which he manufactures his own reality as evidenced by his scheme to learn French and move to Paris. Given his volatility and sordid past, it’s a ludicrous idea, yet as the novel wears on, and Clem is seduced into Christian’s delusional world, she begins to accept that his fantasies of a glorious future are entirely reasonable and deserved. Trying to talk sense to Clem about Christian is rather like trying to persuade the ardent heroin addict to pass on the syringe already stuck in an arm.

This was no place for me, yet I was held to the room–far from fascinated now and the reverse of curious–by something I did not believe in: necessity, compulsion.

Elizabeth Harrower only gives us a few slices of information about Clem’s past, but there are darker hints of some emotional trouble in her past.

Then, all my life I had been ill of emotion, had been much gobbled, prodded. […] To be left alone, I wanted! Not to have people or things, not to be had by them. My very survival, it seemed, had hinged in the absence of feeling in my life. How pure was freedom and isolation!

Does this explain why Clem enjoys a safe platonic friendship with Lewis? He’s already spoken for, and yet he too is in a safely impossible relationship with a married woman.

While Harrower builds a convincing case of how a normal, hard-working, sensible woman can be gradually taken over by a dominant, psychotic personality, at the same time, Clem is a frustrating character–a woman I wanted to shake out of her stupor and passivity. She imagines, at least initially, that she’s an objective, interested observer speculating about Christian’s life and his strange relationship with Olive. Her best friends, Lewis and his sister Helen, can see what a destructive influence Christian is on Clem, but they are powerless (as we are) to stop her descent. There are several scenes when Christian plays both Olive and Clem as if he’s written the script for some tawdry domestic melodrama–scenes in which Clem realizes just how she’s being played.  I wanted Clem to knee him and shove them both out the door….

Emma recently made a comment regarding a novel needing to say something new, and I thought about that as I read The Catherine Wheel. This is the story of an obsessive, destructive  relationship, and how many books have we read on that subject? Yet here Elizabeth Harrower achieves something quite different. She very convincingly shows us a main female character who appears to be very calm, steady and sensible, who is gradually beguiled by a disturbed, charismatic young man, and slowly, gradually, she’s seduced by his dominant personality. His world of chaos, explosive passions, violent jealousy, and financial fecklessness becomes her reality. If you’ve ever had a front row seat to this sort of takeover of one personality by another, then you’ll know that Harrower is a keen observer of human nature.

In Certain Circles, through a handful of characters, Harrower tells the story of marital dominance, and we see how things such as invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouse. The Watch Tower also deals with domestic tyranny, and how abusers create false worlds and then imprison their victims within invisible destructive marital restraints. The Catherine Wheel’s Clem and Christian are not married, but nonetheless, the theme here is dominance and the gradual stripping of power and independence of the underdog in the relationship. While there’s a range of psychotics, bullies and neurotics in these three novels, married or not, Harrower seems to argue that there’s a struggle for power in any relationship, with the more neurotic or psychotic partner gradually eroding the willpower and independence of the other.

Review copy/own a copy.

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Harrower Elizabeth

Joyful: Robert Hillman

“You see how the powerful in purpose trample the lives around them, like titans at a picnic.”

Joyful from Australian author Robert Hillman follows the paths of two grief-stricken men, both “mortal wreckage, washed up on the same beach.” Through these two characters, who descend into madness, the book examines some fundamental questions about the nature of love and grief.

Joyful begins with the death of Leon’s wife Tess, once a beautiful woman, but now all of that beauty has been stolen by cancer. A Catholic priest hastens to her deathbed, and Tess’s husband, a seller of rare books and a man of wealth finds himself wondering if the vigorous, handsome Father Bourke was yet another one Tess’s lovers.

joyfulLeon first met Tess at his bookshop, when she was married to a Turkish man, and a friendship ensues between Leon and Tess with Tess gradually opening up and confiding about her many sexual exploits. Leon, who worships Tess as an object of beauty, and not as a potential sex partner, then invites her to his home where he has stored a remarkable collection of stunning gowns along with shoes and jewelry. Tess goes through a rapid corridor of emotions: first she thinks Leon wants an affair, then she thinks he’s a crossdresser, so she has to modify her emotions considerably when she understands that he wants to dress her up in these clothes and watch her in various poses.

She was about to speak but Leon held a finger to his lips. Tess raised one eyebrow for a second, then submitted. Leon walked around her in an arc, taking in every feature of her form. He stepped back three paces and asked Tess to walk across the room, past the Ungaro, returning to her position by the windows. He asked her to turn her back to him and gaze out the windows. He found a pale grey silk scarf in the wardrobe and suggested to Tess that she wear it across her back and loosely draped over each forearm. Then he asked her to walk across the room again, taking more care with posture.

‘In what way?’

“More erect, but not stiff. Let your shoulders hunch just a fraction. As if the weight of your breasts burdens your shoulders, but only slightly, as if you’re resisting.’

When Tess had crossed the room, he asked her to do so once more, without smiling.

‘I wasn’t!’

‘I’m afraid you were.’

Tess crossed the room again.

‘Can I ask you to try the Bill Blass?’ said Leon

Freud would have had a field day with Leon. Later on we learn that Leon’s lack of sex drive is related (unsurprising) to his first exposure to sexual desire, which in his case, morphed into a distant sexual worship. Tess is the only woman who can match up to Leon’s memories, and so they marry with Tess becoming, to Leon, a fetish object. Since Tess is a woman of strong sexual passions, she has an agreement with Leon–one surely destined to bring unhappiness. She is free to “roam,” and have “adventures,” while Leon doesn’t ask questions.

Her persistence in holding Sunday sacred to her needs was backed by potent reserves of willpower, and the knowledge that she was morally in the right. It had been agreed she would roam. Her husband had conceded the necessity.

After Tess’s death, Leon discovers letters and emails sent to a lover–no shock there, but then he learns that Tess intended to leave him and that she has deposited her Polish lover, Daniel, in Leon’s unseen country property, Joyful. Leon, overwhelmed by grief, and loathing Daniel, travels to Joyful to confront the man he sees as a rival.

The book blurb focuses on Leon as the grief-stricken, jealous husband, and that’s the trajectory of the plot for a good portion of the book, but there’s a second trajectory, also concerning grief, but in this case it’s the loss of a daughter. Iraqi Professor Emmanuel Dalli’s daughter, Sofia commits suicide, and with the earlier death of her brother that leaves the professor and Daanya, his doctor wife, now childless. While Daanya returns to religion, Emmanuel plummets, like Leon, into madness. His grief turns to anger and hatred and his behaviour becomes more and more bizarre.

There is a comic element to the behaviour of both Emmanuel and Leon, but it’s tragicomic. Leon retreats from society and attempts to purge the memories of Tess from the lives of other people while Emmanuel makes a public spectacle of himself. At one point he visits his wife’s clinic and complains loudly at the reception desk that he has a pain in his penis, but then he becomes the town nuisance obviously trying to provoke someone into violence–violence that will perhaps end his suffering or at the very least convert his tortured mental state into physical pain.

While I began the book thinking this was the story of Leon, it gradually became the story of grief–arguably the inevitable end of love. We all grieve in different ways and who is to say what is enough, appropriate or over the line, yet in Emmanuel’s case his grief verges on self-indulgence. The relatively minor character of Emily, the owner of a drab second-hand shop wistfully named Enchanted, is another character who like Leon, loves someone unsuitable for her. Through Hillman’s characters we see how some people destroy with love and how others are destroyed. Sofia is one of those destroyed by love–too frail to withstand life’s stormy waters, and according to Sofia’s mother, “love shook the sense from her.” We are told that love and hate are in natural opposition, and while that’s true, Joyful argues that those we love leave us–either by death or by design, so love and grief go hand in hand in a world in which we seek the elusiveness of perfection.

Joyful appears to have a certain lack of focus. Initially this seemed to be Leon’s story, but then it became Emmanuel’s story. Both Professor Dalli and Leon connect over the issue of Joyful, a house that, as it turns out, was a social experiment, a Utopian society established by Leon’s ancestor, his maternal-great-aunt back in 1942. The journal entries written by Leon’s ancestor great-aunt were a distraction, but by the novel’s conclusion, the plot’s seemingly split trajectory drew focus and a powerful message. I appreciated that Leon, a member of the Thomas Hardy Society, had a wife named Tess–as wild and passionate a character as one could hope to find within the pages of a Hardy novel.

Review copy.

16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hillman Robert

Demons: Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley’s novel, Demons, is set over the course of one winter weekend and concerns a groups of friends who gather together at a remote coastal house and, there, without the distractions of children, computers and televisions, they plan to “stop time,” by just enjoying each other’s company, fixing group meals, and swopping stories. It’s supposed to be a time “to get back to something real.”

Gathering together for the weekend are film-maker Megan and musician Evan, “lately gone a bit to seed,” who have “five kids between them, late teens to early twenties,” lawyer Adam and Lauren whose career is “in advocacy,” retired journalist Leon (Megan’s brother), “he’d beaten the grog with naturopathy, meditation and yoga, and the cure had clung to him almost as persistently as the disease” and Hannah, his new girlfriend– the youngest in the group.

demonsPolitician Marshall and his wife, Jackie are also expected but Marshall arrives late and without Jackie:

Is he with Jackie? said Megan. Evan looked out, and shook his head. If he thinks he can still get something to eat then he can go fuck himself, she said. Marsh! said Evan, waving, but Marshall was already at the door.

That short quote gives you an idea of the author’s style, and while the tone and the conversations are startlingly realistic, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is saying what since this conversation-heavy text is completely devoid of quote marks.

As the weekend wears on, members of the group, a rather privileged cross-section of Australian society, take turns telling stories, and of course telling stories about other people and their problems allows those listening to make various comments about what they’ve heard. But in between these disturbing stories, which range from the deadly serious to the trivial, various problems between these people begin to emerge, and soon, the planned weekend takes a different turn…

It’s Marshall’s arrival that begins to change the atmosphere. He arrives after abandoning his wife during a family tragedy, and his decision to leave his wife and join his friends at the coast says a great deal about Marshall, and while the characters focus on story-telling as entertainment, it becomes clear that the characters also fabricate a kind of fiction around their own lives.

While I can’t say that I liked the characters much, the dialogue and interactions seemed very real indeed, but overall, I carried away the feeling that this might be one of those rare instances in which a film version could be better than the book. I found myself enjoying the stories told by the characters more than the interactions between the friends. In particular, I enjoyed Leon’s story which he claims is true: The Broken String. Leon prefaces the story with the announcement that it’s “about the death of idealism … and the growth of expediency.”

These entertaining stories reveal a great deal about the storyteller, and yet… there’s the sense that Macauley’s characters have fabricated these stories to make salient, social commentary in order to impress one another or to impose some sort of moral message. In other words, there’s no small amount of posing going on as one might expect from this particular, privileged cranny of Australian society. We all know people like Macauley’s characters, and while reading about them & listening to them talk sounds very real, at the same time, I know I wouldn’t want to spend a weekend with this lot.

Ultimately, the stories these characters tell were, for this reader at least, the best part of the book. Megan’s story about a nurse who fights against the bureaucracy of Australian health care hits a nerve even as it uncovers the absurdity of managing recovery :

There’s not much time for any of the Florence Nightingale stuff. Key Performance Indicators, that’s the mantra: people are numbers, even sick people. Especially sick people. It’s an obsession. I don’t know when it started–it’s already lost in the mists of time–but someone at some point decided that the way to improve a screwed-up health system was to ask the bean counters to make it more ‘efficient.’

It became a numbers game. The government put a carrot in front and a stick behind: move the patients through faster and you’ll be rewarded, slower and you’ll be punished.

But when the novel reverts back to its characters, there’s the feeling that we’ve seen these types before–shallow, selfish, self-focused people facing the terrifying void of middle age and discovering that their lives haven’t turned out the way they planned. Naturally the weekend implodes, but the implosion was a storm in a teacup, and the Demons aren’t much more than time-worn, middle-age, middle-class angst.

Review copy

20 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Macauley Wayne

I for Isobel by Amy Witting

I for Isobel, and that’s a curious title with a child like ring, from Australian author Amy Witting (1918-2001), is an episodic view of the life of the heroine. This is a coming-of-age novel, a dislikeable term which implies a sort of cookie cutter simplicity that is, unfortunately, underscored by the title. In the foreword to the Text Classics edition, Charlotte Wood admits that she bypassed Amy Witting’s work because “their titles had turned me off,” and that they sounded “girlish, flatfooted, giving off a cutesy, floral whiff.” Yet there’s nothing simple and girlish about Isobel or this novel; this is the story of a young girl hated by her mother who, with some assistance from an aunt, must make her own way in the world, and what’s striking here is the insular nature of Isobel’s life–stripped of nurturing relationships, sustaining friendships and no real mention of the possibility of romance–we are left with just Isobel, a child, and later a young woman who is interesting for her remarkably self-contained ability to absorb life through the sustaining fuel of books while cloaking her nature and desires into acceptable conformity.

I for IsobelIn the case of Isobel, we see her first a child trying to establish emotional barriers against her mother’s venom, and  after crucial events, by the end of the novel, Isobel appears to have broken through some fundamental constricting membrane and is on the road to finding her own voice. There’s a sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop. Witting had just started a third book in the Isobel series when she died, and that’s our loss.

This wonderful book opens on Isobel’s ninth birthday, and we are immediately dropped into the toxic spite directed towards Isobel by her mother. It’s not that Isobel’s mother ‘forgets’ her birthday–no she continually reminds her of the event and the fact that there will be no celebration:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

Every year at this time she said this; every year Isobel chose not to believe it. Her mother was just saying that, she told herself to make the present more of a surprise. Experience told her that there would be no present. As soon as they stepped out of the ferry onto the creaking wharf and set out for Mrs Terry’s lakeside boarding house, where they spent the summer holidays, the flat reedy shore, the great Moreton Bay fig whose branches scaffolded the air of the boarding-house garden, the weed-bearded tennis court and the cane chairs with their faded flabby cushions, all spoke to Isobel of desolate past birthdays, but she did not believe experiences, either. Day by day she watched for a mysterious shopping trip across the lake, for in the village there was only one tiny store which served as a post office too; when no mysterious journey took place, she told herself they must have brought the present secretly from home. Even on the presentless morning she would not give up hope entirely, but would search in drawers, behind doors, under beds, as if birthday presents were supposed to be hidden, like Easter eggs in the grass.

It’s through the lack of a birthday present that Mrs Callaghan’s spitefulness is apparent, and we never know quite why Isobel’s older sister, Margaret receives preferential treatment when it comes to birthdays–although of course, in order for spitefulness to carry its full sting, there’s no better way than to concoct an arbitrary rule for one child and not for the other. As scenes from Isobel’s childhood unfold, it seems that Margaret is not loved either. There’s a father there, silent, “tired,” and “pale,” and at meal times, one of the occasions when this toxic family gather together, he keeps his head low, ignoring his wife’s tirades. Over time Isobel learns that her mother has two voices: her so-called “real voice,” (the nasty one) and the one she uses when out in society. Isobel also learns that her mother uses rage to seek some sort of emotional catharsis:

Then she saw her mother’s anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.

Her father used to do that, sitting silently while her mother raged at him, chewing his food slowly, turning the pages of his newspaper deliberately–doing what Isobel was doing now, But one night he had put the paper down with a fierce thump and shown a white face, wild eyes and a mouth gaping as if his tongue was swollen. His chair had crashed over, he had picked up the knife from the bread board and run at her mother, who was cringing away with her head at a strange angle and a meek frown on her face, her hands out in front of her and the line of blood suddenly across her fingers.

But before that, when he had got up, before she saw how real the knife was and how near, there had been two little glittering points of satisfaction in her mother’s eyes, two little sea-monsters swimming up from …

Isobel’s childhood absorbs only about 1/4 of the book. Soon she’s a young woman who has learned to contain spontaneity and emotion; she won’t learn so much through her own experiences but from watching the lives of others and, of course, from reading–a habit that sustained her throughout childhood. Salvation and sanity to be gained in reading (“Birthdays, injustices and parents all vanished,”) becomes one of the central themes of the book–from Isobel as a child discovering Conan Doyle and sinking into his books and forgetting, temporarily, at least, the fact that her birthday will be ignored. Then later, when Isobel lives in a shabby boarding house under the thumb of the tyrannical Mrs Bowers, her desire to read alienates her from the other boarders. For Isobel, reading is the most important thing in life.

She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn’t reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire.

Through significant episodes in Isobel’s life, events leave various lasting impressions, and it’s through these events that we see Isobel’s personality form. She passes through office life and eventually runs into some students who recognize her as a fellow reader. Through these relationships, she becomes involved, as an innocent bystander, in a side story of sad obsessive love, and again there’s the sense of Isobel observing the human zoo. As a child, Isobel is aware of the need to mask her desires and expectations as exposure only brings pain, and she manages to master these behaviors through her lack of birthday acknowledgement recognizing that not looking for a gift  “was a step towards the kind of person she longed to be but did not have words to describe–someone safe behind a wall of her own building.” It’s probably this type of strategic, deep thinking that saves Isobel from developing into a neurotic mess, but at the same time, she’s still behind that wall and has yet to emerge.

Towards the end of the novel, when Isobel mixes with a handful of students and finds some like-minded people, she is still an outsider. In one memorable scene a student named Kenneth notes the intense behaviour of a young girl who stalks a man who’s rejected her.  Although the rejected girl’s goals are very different from those of Isobel’s mother, nonetheless there’s a link there:

 “It’s amazing though,” said Kenneth, “what you can get away with if you give up caring about anything else, like self-respect and pride and all that stuff. Turning yourself into a projectile, so to speak.”

Review copy.

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Witting Amy

The Long Green Shore: John Hepworth

When I read Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, In Certain Circles, there’s a brief mention that one of the characters has returned home damaged from a POW camp. While this aspect of the plot is just a small detail in the overall storyline, I realized how little I knew about Australia’s involvement in WWII, and that brings me to The Long Green Shore, a novel written by John Hepworth.

At just over 200 pages, this is a short, tense novel which concerns a battalion of Australian soldiers as they fight for control of the Northern Coast of New Guinea, and the book’s intensity and heart-breaking feeling of authenticity are derived from the author’s personal experiences during WWII. Post WWII, the novel was rejected and was not published until after the author’s death, and so here is this classic war novel which focuses mostly on camaraderie, moments of incredible heroism, and as the author notes, “war in its classic wastefulness.” As Hepworth explains in his note at the beginning of the book, “from the last Christmas of the Second World War until that war ended, two brigades of the Sixth Australian Infantry fought an obscure but at times bitter and bloody campaign along the savage north coast of New Guinea.” The author adds that the novel “is not, strictly, the story of this campaign,” but a “framework.” It’s not too surprising then that the novel reads like an episodic, gripping memoir.

the long green shoreIn a  third person omniscient narrator which occasionally lands on a collective ‘we,’ there are definitely some main characters here–Janos, from NSW, and his wingman Pez remain constants in the novel with secondary characters including Regan, a young man who’s afraid, Old Whispering John who stinks and has yellow teeth, Cairo Fleming, fatherly Doc, and the Laird. The emphasis is on the relationships between the enlisted men, and while the officers are present, they are remote–a different species living in another zone. The battalion is under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Connell, aka Killer Connell, a man who earned his nickname by killing two stray dogs. The men hate Connell for this, and the immediate repercussions during marching exercises illustrate the enlisted men’s solidarity.

The strange duel went on. A clash between a sullen and savage man with the immense mumbo power of discipline and rank behind him and the vast, silent, stubborn anger of a thousand men who would have forgiven him many worse things but could not forgive him shooting two dogs.

By the time the incidents in the novel occurred, the Australian troops were well aware of the Japanese atrocities taking place, so our soldiers, some hardened by combat and death of mates in earlier campaigns in Greece and Egypt, others fresh young kids, are all too aware of the sort of enemy they are fighting and also the fact that it’s better to die in battle than to be taken prisoner. The Australians are also not going to take prisoners, although at one point, a starving Indian, used as some sort of slave by the Japanese, manages to escape to the Australian side.

The book starts off pre-combat with some down time to play cards, write letters, and the arrival of a touch of back-home:

We had received a comforts parcel the day before–you remember those parcels that a benevolent nation distributed for your cultural relaxation and entertainment on shipboard. There were a great number of inspired novelettes in gaudy paper covers with such titles as The Corpse on Fifth Avenue and the Corpse with the Missing Face and Gunfire at Rustler’s Gulch. And they tried to tell us there was a paper shortage back home.

The contents of the parcels, including toothpaste and a bar of soap,  reveal the ignorance of the situation, and this quote reveals a sense of the novel’s tone:

A grateful country looks after its men when they are going into battle. ‘Nothing,’ as Dick the Barber remarked sourly when we opened the parcels, ‘is too good for the Australian soldier.’

The men land on the Northern coast of New Guinea, and although this battalion is to replace the battle-weary Fourth, things initially move slowly and “the troops are used to this old army habit: run like hell to the start point and then sit on your backside for two hours–move two paces and sit some more.” There are rumours that the enemy–“the Nip” is pinned down and in a bad way. “The young reinforcements are cocky and elated,” while “the old hands are not so complacent” as they know that “a starving man is fierce.” The seasoned troops have developed various philosophical approaches to dealing with their situation; they know to conserve their energy, eat and sleep when given the opportunity and hope that they don’t “go Troppo.”

As the Australians arrive, The American troops are leaving the area and there’s the remains of a bulldozed-over cemetery–the American troop ship is leaving with a mountain of coffins:

The heavy, leaden grey casks of the Yankee dead are stacked over in one corner of the area. There are several hundred of them.

One of the first thing the men do is to “scrounge through” the “Yank camp” as “The Yanks always seem to have too much of everything–compared to us–and they always seem to leave half their gear behind them when they go.”

The Yank rations are so good that even their rubbish dumps have better food than we’ve got in our kitchens. Every tent is crowded now with tins of pineapple and peanut butter and assorted stews and hashes. In some of the field rations there are cigarettes and glucose lollies. At night we drink American coffee and munch American issue chocolate (made in Australia, but not for us) and puff American cigarettes.

All this occurs before the combat begins, and when it begins, it swoops in bringing swift, brutal death. As some men die, the survivors continue to their objective. During down time, there’s discussion of the lives the men left behind which include various women problems–women who haven’t waited for their men, women who’ve been involved in affairs, women who want a divorce and move to America. There’s the strong sense that even if these men survive, the lives they return to will be irrevocably altered.

For foreign readers, some of the dialogue (a relatively small amount) may be difficult to follow for its vocabulary and also for the ‘accents’ that occasionally appear in the text. For example, here’s an American speaking (and I wish writers wouldn’t do this):

‘Say, she’s sharp,’ admired the American. ‘She’s gart class.’

He dug out his own wallet. ‘No, nart that one–that’s muh wife. This other ones–that’s muh Bella.’

As a war novel, The Long Green Shore was the perfect length and conveys the sense of fatigued, sustained combat, hardened moral vision, & intense camaraderie. The moments of dark humour balance the book’s bleaker passages; this is a story that examines how men maintain humanity in a war that heightens the barbarism sparked for necessary survival. The story here feels very real, and although there are beautifully descriptive passages, the plot appears to lack any fictional or literary construct. There’s just one moment of sentimentality, but even that feels as though it’s genuine homage to the men who died. Highly recommended.

Review copy

 

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hepworth John

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the mini-series The Slap–the story of what happens when a man slaps a child at a neighbourhood barbecue. The premise itself didn’t sound that gripping to be honest, but the reality, as the episodes followed the fallout, was riveting. So when Sue (aka Gummie) from Whispering Gums read and reviewed Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda earlier this year, I knew I wanted to read it. Barracuda is just one of the two nicknames given to Danny Kelly by other young boys on his swimming team. The other nickname, not so pleasant, is Psycho Kelly. Which one is accurate? Answer: well they both are.

BarracudaDanny Kelly, the son of a Irish/Scottish long distance lorry driver and a glamorous attractive Greek hairdresser mother, comes from an intensely working-class background when he’s poached from his working class school by the swimming coach of “Cunts College” as Danny likes to derisively call it. Cunts College is an elite Melbourne school and with a full scholarship, Danny transfers from his socioeconomic peer group into the school for the “filthy rich.” Just given the basic premise, this is a recipe for disaster.

It was like his two worlds were parts of different jigsaw puzzles. At first, he’d tried to fit the pieces together but he couldn’t do it; it was impossible. So he kept them separate: some pieces belonged on this side of the river, to the wide tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Toorak and Armadale, and some belonged to the flat uniform suburbs in which he lived.

While Danny doesn’t blend in with the boys at his new school, there’s one place he’s can’t be beaten, and that’s in the school’s swimming pool. He’s not at the school long before he feels that “only in the water did he feel like himself. Only in the water did he feel he could escape them.” While other boys have their body hair removed professionally, Danny’s mother uses an old-fashioned razor. While the other boys have “shiny new speedos,” Danny wears cheap trunks. The difference between Danny and the other boys at the school cannot be breached, and even when slight relationships form after Danny’s talent, bravado, and aggression win him a tentative acceptance, these relationships are fraught with tension and class-awareness and everything is held together by Danny’s ability to win at swimming competitions: “he knew that hate was what he would use, what he would remember, what would make him a better swimmer.” This makes for a high stakes situation with an Olympic gold medal as the eventual goal and his ticket to fame and success:

He hated them, he absolutely hated them, the golden boys. He hated their blondness, their insincere smiles, their designer sunglasses, their designer swimmers and their designer sports gear. They made him feel dark and short and dirty. He detested them and he couldn’t wait till he was wearing those sunglasses, till he had those brand names across his sweatshirt

The novel  begins with Danny living in Scotland and then goes back to 1994  when Danny first transfers to the posh Melbourne school. The novel concludes in 2012 for a total time span of 18 years and covers significant incidents in Danny’s life–a life in which Danny’s self-loathing coats his actions. This self-loathing is an impenetrable membrane, and it doesn’t matter who believes in Danny–his mother, his coach, his handful of friends, Danny loathes himself so much, that we know the anger summering beneath the surface will eventually explode in the most self-destructive manner possible. Danny’s coach, at one point, tells Danny that he can help him build muscles and improve technique, but that he can’t do anything about what goes on in Danny’s head, and as it turns out, this is Danny’s greatest stumbling block: not other swimmers, not other students at the school. He is his own worst enemy.

That afternoon, when he dived into the pool, that was when he finally spoke. He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every kick and stroke declare his hate. And the water obey; the water would give him his revenge. No one could beat him, not one of the pricks came close.

We see Danny make horrendous mistakes. Removed from his socioeconomic peer group, and given this fantastic ‘chance’ to train for Olympic competition there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Danny, and author Christos Tsiolkas conveys that pressure while very cleverly making Danny’s self-loathing the central issue rather than his homosexuality. The book really gets to the heart of class conflict. Danny, in a David Copperfield sort-of-way, is invited to share space with some of the wealthiest people in Melbourne. Danny is made to feel inferior, and he reacts with more self-loathing and shame, but there’s also no small amount of class envy. In one great scene, he’s invited to a dinner party for the matriarch of the Taylors, a wealthy family whose members fall over themselves to pay homage to the Grande Dame who holds the family purse strings.

The old woman whispered, “Come closer.”

Danny lowered his head.

“I’ve always admired the working class, my dear, always. Like us, you know exactly who you are. But look at them.” She waved a hand dismissively at the others at the table. “They have no idea how abysmal they are. Lord, how I detest the middle class.”

Danny looked into her bright shining eyes and knew he had just been given a gift, but he didn’t know how to unwrap it, could not figure out how to accept it. The old woman shrugged and rose from her chair, dropping her napkin onto the table.

Mrs. Taylor looked up. “Mother,” she blurted out, “you mustn’t smoke.”

“Oh, fuck off, Samantha,” the  old woman replied as she followed her son out to the courtyard.

Danny’s self loathing is so destructive that he lashes out at everyone who tries to help him, and there are times when Tsiolkas risks, alienating his readers from this character. He’s angry, unpleasant and yet we realize that there’s a brittle ego underneath. A deadly combination as it turns out. I found myself trying to reason with Danny at several points, but of course Danny has to hit rock bottom before he can turn his life around. On one level, the book argues well that talent and skill are not the only elements to make a champion, but there’s a bigger picture here, and that’s taking responsibility for your actions:

You construct a ladder and you climb that ladder, out of the hell you have created for yourself and back into the real world.

Review copy.

31 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Tsiolkas Christos

In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower

I was attracted to the strangeness of his mind as a psychiatrist might have been drawn to an interesting case. He wanted a resident analyst. Neither of us understood.”  

In Certain Circles, Australian author Elizabeth Harrower follows the intertwined  lives of four characters, two sets of siblings from vastly different economic circumstances, from youth to middle age. Siblings Stephen and Anna Quayle are orphaned after their parents are killed in a railroad crossing accident. Subsequently brought up by an intensely distracted uncle and his neurotic invalid wife, Stephen and Anna both learn that life isn’t a golden opportunity as much as a series of insurmountable obstacles. In contrast to Stephen and Anna are the Howards, siblings Russell and Zoe. The Howards, a prominent Sydney family, are educated, affluent and influential people, and Elizabeth Harrower explores the two dynamics of the Haves and the Have-nots, and shows that growing up with privilege and love cushions and cocoons, and yet sometimes can also be its own handicap in unexpected ways. In certain circlesWhen the novel begins, Zoe is seventeen, and her brother Russell is now home after some years in a POW camp. Russell, already altered by the death of two close friends in a swimming accident, returns from war and “proceeded to alarm and disappoint his parents by refusing to involve himself in any of the activities they felt him suited to.” Russell is subdued, controlled and it’s clear that there are strong emotional undercurrents hidden beneath the surface of his calm demeanor, so while he’s actually adrift, he covers this well. Outwardly Russell doesn’t present too many concerns; there are two constants in his life: his close friendship with Stephen Quayle and his relationship with Lily. The Howards approve of Lily, a lecturer in German, a woman of their social circle and a neighbor. She’s considered ‘good’ for Russell. Stephen introduces Zoe to his friends, Stephen and Anna, and he asks Zoe to befriend 15-year-old Anna. Zoe isn’t used to being around people outside of her family’s social sphere, and the “signs of want” in Anna’s cheap clothing “were repellent.” But since Zoe loves her brother Russell, she makes a few weak attempts to befriend Anna noting that “it was awkward to know people who had less money and no proper home.” Meanwhile, Zoe finds herself strangely attracted to Stephen, “a weird irascible character out of some dense Russian novel.” Zoe’s attempts to befriend Anna are reluctant and spurred by the desire to please others. In one painful scene, she attempts to give Anna some discarded clothing, and the offer backfires:

Up off the chair, Anna shot, her eyes growing larger by the second. She backed away, saying, ‘I don’t need anything.’ As if she had unwittingly fired a revolver point blank at someone she’d never seen before, Zoe’s own eyes and face opened with a sort of belated, reciprocal shock. ‘I know you don’t need anything. You’d be doing me a favour. One of my ratty ideas. Stay here while I get us some coffee. We both missed out in all the turmoil down there.’ Escaped, dropping from stair to stair, she gave a series of low groans, not having to imagine self-indulgently what it might be like to be Anna. This small blow was in addition to the rest of her life, Suffering, endurance, were things that Zoe herself knew nothing about, except through art, and because of Russell. And even that, what she had seen and read that pushed her beyond her own experience, had the very impact, she realized now, of watching an experiment in chemistry, never having studied the subject.

Of the four main characters Zoe, Russell, Stephen, Anna–five if we count the neurotic Lily, only Zoe has the capacity for happiness. She’s uncomplicated and thanks to her privileged childhood, she doesn’t grasp how difficult life can be. The introduction of Stephen and Anna into Zoe’s world casts a shadow onto her simplistic view of life, and she cannot understand why Stephen has a menial job, or why he doesn’t go to university. This lack of understanding springs partly from Zoe’s youth, but also partly because she doesn’t want to leave the “pink marshmallow castle of her life.”

She was too young to be thoughtful, or interested in someone else’s problems. She felt a huge impatience at this unwarranted check to her self-absorption and happy conceit and ambition. So they had all had more troubles than she. Did that really make them superior? If two men were walking along the street and a brick fell on one, missing the other, did that make the injured one a better person? All he had learned was what it was like to have a brick fall on his head. It had happened to him. Why make a virtue of it?

The plot allows us to see both sides of the Want-Equation: Stephen’s bitterness that other people have privileged lives, and Anna’s sagacious realization that adversity doesn’t necessarily make people ‘better.’ Of all the characters in the novel, Anna seems to grasp the painful, touchy dynamics of the Haves and the Have-Nots–with one side exhibiting their largesse, and the other side showing their gratitude.

You can admire the way someone meets hard circumstances, but you can’t admire him because of them.

We follow the troubled lives of Zoe, Russell, Stephen and Anna for several decades–through marriages & love affairs, and these are lives in which duty, pity and obligation play large roles. As one character admits: “If we lived forever, there would be time to recover from mistakes of twenty years duration.” These are not happy people, and when it comes to the intelligent observations of the minutiae of marital politics, author Elizabeth Harrower has a painfully fine, unflinching eye. Conversations between those trapped in marriage are laced with the undercurrents of lashing criticism, and we see three examples of how years spent under a subtle domination directed by invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouses. Even though this sort of marital dominance is clearly seen in others (the relationship between Anna & Stephen’s aunt and uncle, is one example), other characters seem unable to avoid similar traps, and over the decades, we see misery gradually descend and dominate two other marriages. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the book’s ending which seemed to wrap things up far too conveniently for a couple of the characters after an implausible deus-ex machina event, but that’s not the part that stays with me. The part that remains is the lingering unhappiness. This is my second Harrower novel, but there will be more. For Lisa’s review go here

Review copy/own a copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Harrower Elizabeth

Julia Paradise by Rod Jones

While Australian novelist Rod Jones’s first novel, Julia Paradise, set in 1920s Shanghai, could appear to be about the enigmatic, mysterious and deeply troubled wife of a missionary, the story is really about her Scottish physician/Freudian analyst/lover Kenneth Ayres. Given that Julia Paradise included an element of psychoanalysis, one of my pet subjects, plus the exotic allure of 1927 Shanghai, I read the blurb, and committed to the novel. Later I almost put the book aside, more of that later, but after concluding this novel, an uneasy, deeply disturbing read, it’s fair to say that author Rod Jones risks alienating his readers at one point with the very details which paradoxically entice analyst Kenneth Ayres into Julia’s intricate sticky web of deceit. Intrigued?… Read on…

julia paradiseIt’s Shanghai 1927, and physician Kenneth Ayres, age 34, a man of considerable bulk at eighteen stone, lives at the Astor Hotel and spends time at the “Shanghai Club, to which he had been given a temporary membership which never quite became permanent and never quite expired.” His hotel apartment also conveniently  serves as his consulting rooms, and it’s here he treats his female patients who seek his help for various “nervous disorders.” Ayres dominates the scene as he “propelled his bulk from the club and back to his hotel,” while on foot, he has to “stop often, panting for little rests.” This is a remarkably visual novel full of the terrifying memories of a childhood in the Duck River region of Northern Australia and the exotic sights and sounds of Shanghai. Of course, it’s exotic for the foreigners in Shanghai–not so much for the locals:

Rickshaw drivers had to struggle to get Ayres’ weight into motion in a stream of Shanghai afternoon traffic.

 Apart from this comic and yet sad image (the underfed rickshaw driver dragging around a fat Scotsman who’s too out of shape to walk a few 100 feet), we immediately gain, or so we think, a very clear picture of Ayres. A bon vivant, and a great table companion for other westerners in Shanghai, he has three favorite topics of conversation: his home town of Edinburgh, his former professor Freud (Ayres’s beard increases the resemblance between the two men), and J.M. Barrie. Ayres specializes in the “treatment of nervous disorders” and after his wife died, he sailed for Australia, but “on a whim disembarked in Shanghai and had been there ever since.”

Socially, the British there treated him with a polite and deferential suspicion. It was as though, with his appointment book full of the names of their wives and their daughters and their cases of petit mal, hysteria and the nervous collapses which followed broken love affairs, he had learned quite enough of their secrets, and they tended to exclude him.

But is this the only reason that Ayres is held at a polite distance? There’s an early hint that there may be something else that keeps Ayres from being treated as a friend by other Europeans who live in Shanghai. Could it be his taste for pre-pubescent girls? For a Freudian therapist who is supposed to help his patients uncover the secrets locked in their subconscious, Ayres is a man whose self-awareness is remarkably shallow and righteously self-indulgent:

He knew well Freud’s remark that ‘some perverse trait or other is seldom absent from the sexual life of normal people’.

One day, Ayres observes a woman as she dashes into the hotel and just as frantically, exits. Then a moment later, she returns, a bundle of nerves, “panicky and disoriented” on the arm of her husband. The woman is Julia Paradise married to William Paradise, a Methodist minister, there to see Dr. Ayres. In the doctor’s consulting rooms, Julia’s story is told by her husband, and he describes Julia as a narcoleptic who during periods of drowsiness began spouting German, her father’s language. Sedatives were given and then withdrawn, and Julia became increasingly worse and more dysfunctional, hallucinating, swinging wildly between periods of withdrawal, and periods of creative energy during which she ran off to Shanghai with her camera to take photographs of the denizens who inhabit the seediest areas.

Initially Ayres sees Julia’s case as “common to the point of banality,” as he’s seen a steady stream of women who are “victims of  their husbands’ ambitions in the colonial services.” To Ayres, for these women “the cure was as simple as a steamship ticket home.” The details of Ayres’s behaviour as he listened to Rev. Paradise reveal that Ayres, a man of enormous appetites, is hardly compassionate. He agrees to take the case, but there’s a sense of brutality and boredom to his acquiescence–what can Julia’s story contain that he hasn’t heard a thousand times before. But while Ayres doesn’t bother to hide his disinterest (after all, he’s the only game in town, so where else is Rev. Paradise going to seek help), it’s clear that Julia’s disintegrating behaviour is rooted in some deep, dark psychological disturbance.

The root cause of Julia’s mental problems is gradually revealed through her ‘sessions’ with Ayres. If there were any doubts about the doctor’s lack of integrity, those doubts are confirmed by his completely unprofessional, exploitive behaviour as the layers of this morphine-soaked tale reveal the horrors of incest.

There was a moment when I wasn’t sure I could continue with Julia Paradise. The vibes around the incest tale were so repulsive, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read on. I mean, really… who wants to read about incest? As a subject, incest might be a deal-breaker for some readers, and while I understand that choice, I’ll add that incest is used here as a ‘tool,’ and it’s not until the novel is over that we realize exactly what we’re read, and exactly how we’ve been seduced along with Ayres.  Julia Paradise is a very clever novel, and once past the incest, something shifts, and the novel becomes a different tale than we were originally led to believe. Julia’s tale of a past full of depravity, shrouded with images of death and decay, draws Ayres into her web, and he’s attracted to her malignant childhood and finds her “the most suggestible patient he had ever come across in his life.” Ayres is entranced with Julia, and completely and utterly seduced by her tale, his ego takes him along a path where his fate awaits him.  We go along for the ride.

Julia Paradise, a tale which takes place against the upheaval of the Chinese civil war, and which examines the many layers of human exploitation, is a tale of moral redemption. Julia is a fractured human being, an enigma, and long after the tale is finished questions remain:

She was like a brilliantly-coloured jigsaw puzzle dismantled and spread across the floor of his mind. His thoughts continued to inhabit small sections of her life–or what he increasingly thought of as her ‘lives’. He talked aloud to her, pleading with her to clarify this point, to explain the apparent contradiction between this and that to make sense of the brutal pantomime he played over and over. In short, he became obsessed.

In terms of its exotic location and the theme of moral redemption Julia Paradise, reminded of Maugham’s wonderful novel, The Painted Veil, but for its insidious plot which examines the complexities of human sexuality, this book should appeal to fans of Jeannette Winterson.

Review copy/own a copy

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Jones Rod