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Archive for April, 2012

To my mind, all novels enter into a larger conversation with all the novels that have come before them.  In some instances this is thematic; in others it’s a more direct dialogue.  Lloyd Jones’ superbly crafted Mister Pip is one of the latter types, creating a close relationship with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (see my review here).  Early on in Mister Pip, our young narrator, Matilda, relates how she feels she was entering into the story of Great Expectations as it is read to her class by the memorable Mr Watts.  I understand this beguiling and beautiful pull completely, for I was experiencing the same thing; I was entering into the world of Mister Pip.

And what a world it is.  Set against the backdrop of a civil war on Bougainville, Matilda tells the story of her village during the war, and how Mr Watts, the last remaining white man in the village after the blockade, steps in to teach her and the other kids in their school.  He is not a teacher, and tells them that he has no wisdom, but he exudes such a presence that the children respond to him.  The only book he has at his disposal is Great Expectations, which he describes as “the greatest novel by the greatest writer of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens.”  He reads it to the class and Matilda and the others are hooked.  She feels as though Pip is a real person, a friend.

Bougainville is a tropical paradise.  It is “one of the most fertile places on earth.  Drop a seed in the soil and three months later it is a plant with shiny green leaves.  Another three months and you are picking its fruit.”

But war transforms this paradise into something of a hell.  Trouble descends when the government army come into the town looking for rebels, destroying the villagers’ possessions and homes.  Mr Watts is introduced to them as Mr Dickens, and soon the soldiers are trying to find Mister Pip too.

In the aftermath of their visit, Mr Watts tells the children:

… these loses, severe though they may seem, remind us of what no person can take, and that is our minds and our imaginations.

Amen to that.

Acts of violence are never far away, though, and Pip is something of a life-raft to which Matilda clings; (she clings to Mr Jaggers in an unexpected way later in the book too!).

Much to his credit, Mr Watts invites all the children’s parents and family into the class to tell the kids whatever it is they know about life.  Here we see Matilda’s God-fearing mother, Dolores, become something of a nemesis to the non-religious Mr Watts.  Their tender rivalry is depicted so, so well.  Matilda reflects that her mother:

thought she had Mr Watts summed up.  She could not see what us kids have come to see: a kind man.  She only saw a white man.  And white men had stolen her husband and my father.  White men were to blame for the [copper] mine, and the blockade.  A white man had given us the name of our island.  White men had given me my name.  By now it was also clear that the white world had forgotten us.

But though Dolores thinks she has the wood on Mr Watts, it is really he who has the measure of her.

Jones construct some sublime moments, including the scene in which Matilda, remembering a fragment of the destroyed Great Expectations rans breathless into Mr Watts’ house in the moment he closes the eyes of his dead wife.  The dilemmas that Matilda, her mother, and Mr Watts all face as things race toward the climax are also deftly managed, and the climax when it comes is gripping stuff.

There are wonderful echoes of Great Expectations throughout, in the characters, plot, and even the way the book starts, with Matilda introducing us to Mr Watts by his other name, the name everyone knew him as: Pop Eye – just as Pip introduces himself by his nickname.

Mister Pip was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 (losing to Anne Enright’s The Gathering) and won the (now sadly defunct) Commonwealth Writers’ prize for best book in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific ‘zone’ in the same year.

There is a movie version in the works, with none other than Hugh Laurie (better known as Dr Gregory House) playing the part of Mr Watts.  It is due out sometime this year.

Mister Pip speaks to us about how the power of story can triumph in the most appalling of situations.  In so doing it becomes a triumph itself, a haunting book that will stay with me long after reading.  I wager it will have the same effect on you.

Also worth a look is the First Tuesday Book Club’s panel discussion of Great Expectations with Lloyd Jones and the marvellous Miriam Margolyes, which you can see here.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

2006

Text

220 pages

ISBN: 9781021520242

Source: the local municipal library

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I am late arriving to Hilary Mantel’s fabulous, Booker-winning Wolf Hall, which tells the rise (and rise) of Thomas Cromwell, from the lowly son of a blacksmith to the highest of courtiers to the Tudor King, Henry VIII, drawn against the backdrop of the annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Queen Katherine and the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the schism in the church it creates.  I don’t intend to spend time outlining the story; there’s enough of that elsewhere.  What I want to muse on is Mantel’s characterisation of Cromwell, the master power-broker.

In most novels we find a protagonist who wants something and we follow them as they set about to get it.  Their desire is clear to us, and though in the best of stories they might get what they ‘need’ rather than what they ‘want’, their want is outlined from the off.  (We get to see their need as the story develops.)  What Mantel does in the close-third-person, present-tense re-creation of Cromwell is very interesting.  For much of the novel, his desire is hidden, unstated, slippery.  After travelling abroad, learning languages, banking, the art of relationships, he finds himself returning toLondon to take up the business of a lawyer.  Here he serves the infamous Cardinal Wolsey very well (as well as maintaining his own business affairs), and we see his loyalty and cunning, but, there is no overt desire stated.  It is only much later, after Wolsey’s death, when Cromwell is rising up the ranks in Henry’s court (much to the dismay of all the high-born councillors), that he begins to ask for some things.  But even then it is more a case of Henry thrusting positions and honours upon him without him asking for them.

This lack of inner awareness is wonderful characterisation.  Cromwell’s as slippery as aThameseel.  Henry’s old friends wonder who he is and how he got to where he is, [p394]:

Brandon grunts.  ‘We all are [guided by Cromwell].  We must be.  You do everything, Cromwell.  You are everything now.  We say, how did it happen?  We ask ourselves … but by the steaming blood of Christ we have no bloody answer.’ 

In a way, Cromwell can’t answer them, for he is spellbound by himself as well.  Late in the book he thinks, [p577]:

I shall not indulge More, …or his family, in any illusion that they understand me.  How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself? 

Alice More, wife of Thomas, is under no illusion as to his abilities, telling him, [p605]:

‘My husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’

The construct of a man who acts on instinct rather than pre-planning is reinforced time and time again.  What could be a better way of constructing Cromwell’s rise than to do it in this way?  It’s brilliant.

The depiction of the courtiers’ cut and thrust is sublime.  The dialogue is delicious, the humour ripe.  There’s one instance, after Cromwell discusses a carpet which he is wondering whether should be put on the wall or the floor.  Says Stephen Gardiner to Cromwell:

‘We all know that money sticks to your hands.’ 

Like the aphids to More’s roses.  ‘No,’ [Cromwell] sighs.  ‘It passes through them, alas.  You know, Stephen, how I love luxury.  Show me a carpet, and I’ll walk on it.’ 

Then there’s the moment when Cromwell comes to court to see Henry and is refused entry thus, [p422]:

‘The king cannot see you this monring.  He and Lady Anne are composing some music for the harp.’

Rafe catches his eye and they walk away.  ‘Let us hope in time they have a little song to show for it.’  

Cromwell is a master at reading people’s faces and body language.  The way he knows that Henry has (finally) bedded Anne is a joy.  (I’ll leave it for you to discover how.)

Research is woven into the prose effortlessly.  Take for instance this passage, where it builds upon the picture of Cromwell’s commercial prowess as he ingratiates himself to a Welsh merchant so he could marry his daughter: [p41]:

“Latterly, Wykys had grown tired, let the business slide.  He was still sending broadcloth to the north German market, when – in his opinion, with wool so long in the fleece these days, and good broadcloth so hard to weave – he ought to be getting into kerseys, lighter cloth like that, exporting through Antwerp to Italy.” 

There are some beautifully lyrical sections, including many of the early chapter ends.  Take, for instance, this end to the first chapter: [p16]:

“He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a grey wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.” 

It seems remiss to just look at Cromwell’s characterisation, for all the characters are so deftly drawn.  Wolesy is a marvellous creation, so too Anne and Mary Boleyn.

Cromwell works very hard, and as the new positions of trust are added onto all the old ones, he increasingly wants for a day off.  Anne Boleyn’s coronation sees him organise everything, even the weather.  And then there’s the business of Thomas More and all the recalcitrant papists running aboutEngland.  The want of a day off ties in nicely with the book’s end.

I might have come late to Mantel’s marvellous Tudor world, but I won’t be as tardy when Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, is released next month.

Hilary Mantel is ‘appearing’ (via video-link) at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, talking about Bring up the Bodies.  See here for details.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2009

Fouth Estate

650 pages

ISBN: 9780007230204

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Though published (way!) back in 1990, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses is as alluring as the scent of violets. Split into the five senses, to which is added a chapter on synesthesia, Ackerman – a poet – explores her material with a lyrical wonder that is infectious and great reading.

A cursory glance at the fascinating chapter on (the very under-rated sense of) touch will give you an idea of what I mean.  We learn that safe-crackers sandpaper their fingertips to make “the top layer of skin thinner so that the touch receptors will be closer to the surface.”  There is a wonderful little exploration of all those idioms that involve touch, such as: how we are ‘touched’ when something moves us deeply; the ‘touché’ that fencers say to concede a touch of their opponent’s foil, and we say it when our opponent in an argument has foiled us with a retort; there is the expression ‘touch and go’, which originated back in the horse and carriage days when the “wheels of two coaches glanced off each other as they passed, but didn’t snag”; and there is the notion of ‘losing touch’.

Ackerman then relates the mesmerising truths about how touch improves the health of premature babies.  Hospitals have volunteers who come it to massage these tiny humans, who in response, “gain weight as much as 50% faster than unmassaged babies.  They’re more active, alert, and responisve, more aware of their surroundings, better able to tolerate noise, and they orient themselves faster and are emotionally more in control.”  The benefits of touch extend to all babies and have long-lasting effects too.  Studies have shown that “babies who were held more became more alert and developed better cognitive abilities years later.”  More disturbing are the separation experiments on primates that show brain damage results from a lack of touch.

There are all sorts of wonders of touch in the animal kingdom, from sponges to tapeworms to coackroaches to turtles.  Turtles can feel their shells being scratched!  More recent epxeriments focus on frogs as predictors of earthquakes, possibly as a result of extra static electircity in the air.  Ackerman herlsef relates observing the launch of a rocket fromCape Canaveraland how the air “felt itchy and electric”.

There are explorations of the history of tattoos, pain, kissing.  We learn that the ‘x’ we put at the end of a letter (or email!) that represents a kiss arose from the days when people were illiterate and marked their signature with an ‘x’, which “stood for ‘St Andrew’s mark’, and people vowed to be honest in his sacred name.  To pledge their sincerity, they would kiss their signature.”  In time this became shorthand for a kiss.

Finally, Ackerman delves into the astonishing results of studies on touch that show the importance of subliminal touch.  Waitresses who “lightly and unobtrusively touch diners on the hand or shoulder … consistently tip the waitress higher.  Other studies show increased honesty when people receive subliminal touches.

So, if you didn’t believe in the power of touch beforehand, now you ought to!  Go and give yoru nearest and dearest a hug today … (or touch them without them noticing and watch the tips flow!)

And that’s just the touch chapter!  All the others are equally captivating.

Ok, so it shows its age in a few places, and there may well be more up-to-date alternatives I’m not aware of.  Much has been discovered about brain plasticity in recent years, for instance.  But of course the history of how we came to understand and appreciate (and underappreciate) our senses hasn’t changed.

As for the scent of violets, there’s a reason it’s so beguiling: it has a chemical in it that interferes with our ability to smell.  It is like the tide: we smell its wonderful aroma until it switches our nose off, then, after a time, our nose switches back on and we smell it again.  Violets thus seem to pulse with scent.  No wonder it was so prized by the ancients as a perfume!

An interesting, informative, and entertaining read.

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

1990

Vintage

309 pages

ISBN: 9780679735663

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Well, it’s almost that time of year again: the Sydney Writers’ Festival runs the week of May 14th – 20th, with the main programme extending through Thursday – Sunday.

As always, it’s a matter of so many authors and topics of interest, so little time!   And it’s Murphy’s Law that there are always clashes.  Sigh.

I’m attending several sessions, including:

17: ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’: Bill Gammage tells Lyndall Ryan about the systematic way Aborigines managed the land.

23: ‘The Second Time’: Kirsten Tranter, Deborah Forster and Steven Amsterdam tell Angela Meyer about the second novel syndrome.

55: ‘Spirit of Progress’: Miles Franklin Award-winning writer Steven Carroll talks about his new novel, (just shortlisted for this year’s MF award).

90: “The Sweep of Narrative’: With his latest, Elliot Perlman has cemented his reputation as a master storyteller. He talks to Elizabeth Johnstone.

108: ‘Classic!’: Kate Grenville, Tom Keneally, Geordie Williamson and Michael Heyward discuss Australian classics.  (Can’t wait!)

143: ‘Kate Grenville’: Kate Grenville talks to Ashley Hay about her bestselling trilogy of novels on colonialSydney.  [Sold out]

151: ‘On Canaan’s Side’: Sebastian Barry talks to Suzanne Leal about his latest novel.  (I enjoyed The Secret Scripture – see my review here), and Barry is a reportedly a real perfomer in his readings.

167: ‘Old Scrags and Other Sheilas’: P.A. O’Reilly and Kerry Greenwood talk to Kerryn Goldsworthy about how to create memorable Australian female characters.

182: ‘But is it a Good Read?’: Stella Rimington, Stephen Romei and Neil James tells us what makes a book a good read.  (Given Rimington’s provocative statements as Chair of last year’s Booker Prize judges on her want for ‘readability’, this should be an interesting session!)

185: ‘Bring up the Bodies’: Hilary Mantel discusses her new book via video link with Michael Cathcart.  (I’m reading Wolf Hall at the moment, review soon!)

218: ‘A Frenetic Career?’: Tom Keneally talks to Richard Glover about life that comes with such prolific output.

242: ‘He Never Asked for the Matches’: Barbara Mobbs and David Marr (biographer of Patrick White) on the ethics of posthumous publishing.

I’ll try and squeeze in a few others, but, I have to eat!

There’s others I’d love to get to but can’t because of clashes, such as: Rodney Hall, Jesmyn Ward (winner of 2011 (US) National Book Award), and Pulitzer-winning Jeffrey Eugenides.

See: www.swf.org.au for details.

See you there.

Are you going to #SWF2012?  What are you looking forward to?

The D!

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