Tag Archives: Australian fiction

The Death of Bunny Munro: Nick Cave

What on earth can be done with a man who sneaks off from his wife’s funeral in order to have a quick wank in the bathroom? …

In Nick Cave’s novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, the perpetually libidinous travelling salesman Bunny doesn’t stop to mourn his wife when she tops herself in their small Brighton flat. Libby may be dead, and that may leave Bunny Munro in sole charge of his nine-year-old son, Bunny Junior, but it’s not going to cramp this Casanova’s lifestyle. He hits the road with his kid in tow “learning the ropes.”  You can’t help but feel sorry for Bunny Junior, a bright little boy who suffers from untreated blepharitis and who carries around an encyclopedia, a gift from the mother who “loved him to bits.”

the death of bunny monro

Bunny Monro is a ladies’ man–cocky, infused with “irrepressible optimism,” and happy in the knowledge that women “with no coercion step into the slipstream of his considerable sexual magnetism.” But is that strictly true? When we meet Bunny on page 1, he’s hired a prostitute and later he recalls a scene in which his wife Libby caught him with an unconscious girl. As Bunny, driving a battered Punto, hits the road with his son, he has encounter after encounter in which reality crashes into fantasy. With his life coming apart at the seams, Bunny, who fantasizes about various celebrity vaginas, continues to see women as “walking fuck-fest[s]” or available vaginas walking into his life. Somewhere deep inside there’s a recognition of what he’s become and what he’s done, but with a lifetime of avoidance, it’s easier for Bunny to carry on with business as usual. Rather than take any responsibility for his wife’s death, Bunny decides he’s “victimized ” by  circumstance.

He is afforded no insights, no illuminations, no great wisdoms but he can see immediately why the ladies dig him. He is not a toned, square-jawed lover boy or cumberbunded ladies’ man but there’s a pull, even in his booze-blasted face, a magnetic drag that has something to do with the pockets of compassion that form at the corners of his eyes when he smiles, a mischievous arch to his eyebrows and the little hymen-popping dimples in his cheeks when he laughs. Look! There they are now! 

Banned from a number of McDonalds for life, Bunny hits the road with his “pomaded forelock” along with “new-found pulling power” and continues his job as a salesman while poor Bunny Junior is neglected in the process. Bunny claims he needs the work in order to deal with his grief, but the trip is really just an excuse to meet women and have as much sex as possible. As a mad horned killer stalks England, the killer’s continuing movement south seems to coincide with Bunny Monro’s misfortunes on his road trip which is peppered with a few ghostly visitations. Armed with a list of potential clients, Bunny tries to sell beauty products and his own questionable charms.

The first was a Mrs Elaine Bartlett, who lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats in Moulsecombe. Lying on the floor of its only working elevator was a bombed-out kid with a can of air freshener in one hand and a Tesco bag in the other and a Burberry cap on his head. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, except the boy had emptied the contents of his bowels into his shorts and these were pulled down around his skinny, little ankles. The boy had managed, rather heroically, thought Bunny, to graffiti in green spray on the elevator wall, ‘I AM A SAD CUNT’. Bunny had stepped into the elevator, then stepped out and allowed its doors to judder shut. He contemplated momentarily climbing the four flights of stairs to Mrs Elaine Bartlett’s flat and realized, to his credit, that there was no way he was going to make it up them in his present condition, so he staggered back to the Punto.

The Death of Bunny Munro is a wickedly funny book with large dollops of the humour (often at Bunny’s expense) taking potshots at various societal taboos. One of the best scenes in the book (and it was hard to pick one) takes place as Bunny describes a girl in “gold hipster hotpants.” While reading through the oversexed sponge of Bunny’s brain is definitely raunchy, author Nick Cave never sinks to the puerile. Instead Bunny is a very real character, a retro male who deludes himself into thinking that his leering, drooling, drunken attentions are welcomed by every female on the planet.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Irvine Wells: “Put Cormac McCarthy, Franz Kafka and Benny Hill together in a Brighton Seaside guesthouse and they might just come up with Bunny Monro.” I don’t agree, but the quote does make a point. Bunny is a morally reprehensible human being, and while he thinks he’s charming to all the ladies, the truth is that his limited appeal ensnares a certain type (comatose, mentally incompetent and/or indiscriminate are attributes that Bunny likes in his women). With this sort of character at the fore of the plot, it’s fun to just sit back and read about Bunny as he careens from disaster to disaster. But again, when a character lacks an iota of self-awareness, the plot usually aims in certain limited directions. I didn’t care for the book’s ending, but I’m not sure that the plot could have gone in any other direction.

For another take on the novel, see Lisa’s blog.

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The Snow Kimono: Mark Henshaw

“There are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same.”

In Mark Henshaw’s multi-layered novel The Snow Kimono, retired police Inspector Auguste Jovert is a man with an uncomfortable past he’d much rather forget. Since retiring, he’s had the “feeling that he was lost.” With more time on his hands, “fragments from his past had begun to replay themselves in his head.” It’s Paris 1989, and Jovert, who spent some shady years in Algeria, has just received a letter from a young woman who claims she is his daughter.

It was as if, now that he was approaching the end of his life, the overall pattern of his existence was about to be revealed to him. But the moment of revelation never came. Instead, he began to have doubts, to wake up at night. What’s more, he constantly had the impression that something was about to happen. Then something did happen. The letter arrived.

The letter from the woman claiming to be his daughter is thrown away, and Jovert thinks that’s the end of the matter, but then he meets his neighbor, Japanese law professor Omura, a man with a sad past of his own. Jovert, a distinctly solitary individual, initially rejects Omura when Omura begins to be more than just a casual fixture in Jovert’s life, but there’s some thread, some commonality that ties them together, and while Jovert struggles against Omura’s friendship, he’s really struggling against coming to terms with his past. Omura’s conversations yield stories about his own life, but somehow the stories, the situations, make Jovert extremely uncomfortable.

Jovert had never liked conversations like these, conversations he did not control, which reversed the natural order of things.

But you must know, Omura said abruptly.

Why must I know? Jovert replied. It’s got nothing to do with me.

Jovert watched as a gust of wind scooped up a plastic bag lying in the gutter opposite. Its ghostly form swept up through the lamp light. For a moment, it skimmed back and forth across the façade of the building opposite, as though it was pursuing something. Then without warning, it shot up into the sky above their heads and disappeared.

Omura has a “strangely mesmerizing voice,” and he tells Jovert the story of his friend from university, the malignant, charismatic writer, Katsuo Ikeda, who has “a talent that is poisoned.” Ikeda, a user of women, a chronic seducer who left many disillusioned lovers on the way to his success is a “merciless observer of people. He had a sixth sense about a person’s weaknesses, their foibles, their fears.”  There’s tragedy in Omura’s life and as Omura, an epic storyteller, reveals his past through his stories, Jovert gradually begins to see connections with his own life, and he’s shaken to the core.

the snow kimono

The Snow Kimono is a hypnotic read, and although afterwards it feels a little contrived, Omura’s history is so well told and constructed, all contrivance is forgiven. Although both Omura and Jovert’s stories are about people who are either dead or lost somewhere in the past, nonetheless, these characters pulse with life–even in their absence. This is a complex tale–stories within stories. In one section, Omura describes the Japanese jigsaw puzzle:

Ours is an ancient tradition, quite distinct from what you have here in Europe. Each piece of a puzzle is considered individually. No shape is repeated, unless for some special purpose. Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truths about the world.

After I finished the book, that seminal quote came back into my mind. Omura’s story, after all, is a jigsaw puzzle, and its “greater” truth is finally revealed.

There are two central mysteries to the tale concerning Jovert and Omura, and they are connected by moral considerations. Can one man learn from the mistakes of another? This is ultimately a story about the slipperiness of the truth, facing up to one’s actions, acknowledging the past, and assuming one’s responsibilities–no matter how unpleasant that might be.

review copy

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Moral Hazard: Kate Jennings

Australian author Kate Jennings sets her short novel, Moral Hazard, in New York. My Text Classics edition states that Jennings moved to New York in 1979, married an artist and designer in 1987, but when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, Jennings gave up her freelance work and began working as a corporate speechwriter. I didn’t read these details until after finishing the book, but this certainly explains why the novel feels like a memoir of a short period of the main character’s life.

This is 93-94, New York’s Wall Street before 9-11, before the dot-com bust, before the Madoff investment scandal, before the real estate madness that gripped America for the first part of the oughts. I’d like to think that we’ve all learned something about money and finances, but I know that we haven’t. As long as there is money, people will take risks, riding that theoretical elevator to wealth and success.

moral hazard

In Moral Hazard, Cath, our narrator, gives up her freelance writing job and takes a job as a speechwriter for the investment bank, Neidecker Benecke, “whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas.”  It’s an unlikely job for someone who “disapproved of bankers on principle,” and who’d much rather be reading Sylvia Townsend Warner or Muriel Spark. But Cath needs money, so like many other people, she packs away her principles from 9-5 in exchange for a paycheck. Her husband, designer and collagist, Bailey, twenty-five years her senior, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and so this leaves Cath as the sole breadwinner, paying rent on an Upper East Side apartment, working and returning home to her rapidly disintegrating husband.

The plot follows two different paths–Cath’s care for her husband as his disease progresses and her job at Neidecker Benecke (“in the modern day equivalent of the court of Louis XVI,”) where she befriends Mike, the head of the risk-management unit, a man who’s fond of Frank O’Hara. This is a casual friendship with moments shared over cigarettes, and Cath asking questions, at first so that she better understand her job, and then, later, so that she can better understand Mike. Mike is a very intelligent man who understands the central paradox to the financial markets, and it’s driving him crazy.

Mike, though, was like a married man who falls in love with another woman and plots to kill his wife to gain freedom, when the obvious solution is to drive off down the road to another life.

There are two distinct worlds here: Cath’s dreary, surreal life in the corporate world, and her life with her husband. You come away from this book wondering how Cath kept her sanity. There’s a very definite corporate speak at Neidecker Benecke with exchanges that could very well be delivered by a dead pan Bill Murray as evidenced in a scene between Cath and her boss, Hanny:

“You can write, but you can’t handle complex arguments.”

Generous of him.

“Absolutely. You’re so right. Thank you for sharing that with me. My reasoning powers definitely need developing. I’ll work on it. I’ll work on it very hard,” I replied. Mike had taught me this trick. When someone says something preposterous, agree with them, even heighten the idiocy.

Cath initially tries to keep her husband at home, but as his disease progresses to diapers, temper tantrums and violence, she’s forced to place him in a home, and it’s here that her private misery becomes a matter for the American health system. Both Cath’s job at Neidecker Benecke and her husband’s continuing decline are madness in different forms. The madness of derivatives and the madness of Alzheimer’s–the corporate disease and the human decay.

“Once upon a time, it was commodities, then futures, now derivatives,” he’d opined, delicately shooting his cuffs. “It’s all structured finance. It’s all aimed at neutralizing risk by parceling it up, selling it to someone else.”

While this may sound all very depressing, author Kate Jennings manages to step outside her subject, looking with a wry, unsentimental eye at corporate eye and even Cath’s husband’s last months of life. Faced with corporate malfeasance and assisted suicide, Cath, who’s long since fallen down the rabbit hole, faces ‘moral hazard’ on both professional and personal fronts. Moral Hazard, by the way, has a very specific meaning in the world of finance (a rather ironic one, I’ll add) but the term has multiple instances of significance in the novel.

That first summer, after work, I took to wandering the aisles of Century 21, not shopping, only relieved to be where nothing was demanded of me. I was commuting, it seemed, between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder’s value.

This is a lean, finely sculptured novel, crafted with twin strains of the surreal feeling of corporate life and the overwhelming melancholy of watching Bailey’s inevitable decline. Various corporate employees spring to life with venomous alacrity: “enthusiastic bigot,” Hanny and Horace, the unpopular yet powerful cipher “wreathed with gossip.” And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the employees at the care home, hard-working caretakers with dreams of becoming middle class.

Review copy.

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Hush, Little Bird: Nicole Trope

Hush, Little Bird from Australian author Nicole Trope brings together two vastly different narrative voices that are tied together by place (a low security women’s prison) and their shared pasts. One of the voices belongs to a 33-year-old woman nicknamed Birdy by her fellow inmates for her knowledge and love of finches, and her job at the prison is to maintain an aviary of Gouldian and Zebra finches. Birdy is someone we would describe as ‘slow’ and although she’s separated in prison from her small daughter, she has managed to establish a firm place for herself amongst the other inmates. There are four women to each bungalow, and one of Birdy’s housemates, the very tough Jess, has taught Birdy how to manage her violent temper. It’s also through Jess that Birdy learned the word “agenda,” and now that a new prisoner is about to arrive, Birdy understands that she has an ‘agenda’ to complete.

I learned that word from Jess. She told me an agenda is a plan that you have to keep secret. Sometimes your agenda can make you do things that no one else understands. Whenever anyone is cranky with her, Jess says, ‘Tell me, love, what’s your agenda?’

What’s your a-gen-da?

The new inmate is a wealthy woman in her 50s, Rose Winslow; she’s the mother of two adult daughters, Portia and Rosalind, and she was married, for 40 years, to Simon, an “icon” of Australian television. Most of the other inmates have been transferred to ‘the Farm’ for their extended good behaviour at other institutions, but Rose’s lawyer managed to pull some strings to get her sent there while he lodges an appeal.

hush little bird

When the novel begins, we don’t know the details of the crimes Birdy or Rose committed, but we’re told that Birdy is there for some act of violence and that Rose claims that whatever she did is ‘an accident.’ While Birdy recognizes Rose, and plans some sort of terrible revenge,  Rose, due to the passage of time and Birdy’s weight gain, doesn’t recognize Birdy. These two women’s stories are gradually parceled out in alternating chapters with tension created by Birdy’s ever-encroaching plan for revenge, and the gradual revelation of each woman’s past.

This is one of those books where to discuss the plot will ruin the experience for other readers, so that’s as far as I will go. As always with alternating narratives that form the novel’s central puzzle, the author must balance tension with information. Sometimes this structure, especially when the reader is deliberately thrown red herrings, can be annoying. Here, in author Nicole Trope’s hands, the structure worked well. The biggest problem I had to overcome as a reader was believing that Rose wouldn’t have pulled out all the stops when it came to her murder trial, but then this book, while it is the story of two women, is fundamentally Rose’s story–how she must come to terms with not just some horrible truths about her life, but also some ugly truths about her passivity, her malleability, her gullibility.

“hindsight–oh, the delights of hindsight–“

This book was recommended to me by Kim at Reading Matters, and her review is here

Review copy

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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