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SWF 2014 logoOne of the highlights of the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival was seeing Irishwoman Eimear McBride talk with Geordie Williamson about her stunning, award-winning debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (my review here). The novel was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Prize (previously the Orange Prize for fiction) in 2014 (announced this past week). The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to ‘reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, which gives you an idea of where A Girl is placed.

Geordie asked Eimear to set up their discussion by doing a reading. And what a pleasure it was to hear McBride read from the work that is so stylistically different to pretty much everything you’re likely to read. She read from the opening, which I confess I had to re-read a couple of times before I got what was going on, what with the jagged short sentence structure she employs. And although in my own head the writing quickly came alive, it was another thing to hear it spoken aloud by its creator.

The risk with the experimental style McBride employs, said Williamson, is that it could have fallen into an idiolect that no one understands, a modern companion to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which many regard as a dead-end of high modernism. This is something that McBride avoids. But, asked Williamson, ‘we have to talk about punctuation: what have you got against the comma?!’

The comma is overrated, joked McBride, before she went on to say the use of the full stop shows the reader that something else is going on in the story. It’s an immediate signal. Williamson noted Henry James as a great user of commas, the master of building up tension in a sentence for as long as possible, holding completion at bay. McBride said the truncated sentences match the experience of the unnamed girl narrator.

How did the style develop? She said she spent a long time writing and then, aged twenty-five, she read Joyce’s Ulysses, and everything changed. All the work she had done went into the bin. She felt there is a lot of room left in the modernist tradition to plumb. Proper sentences don’t necessarily allow us to show all of human experience.

Williamson said Irish writers typically choose between Joyce and Beckett as their inspiration, but McBride said she didn’t see the difference between the two. Language is key for both of them. Williamson mentioned another possible influencer, likening short sentences to the ultimate ‘bloke’: Ernest Hemingway. Did McBride consider choice of gender and flip it? She said, you’re not conscious of gender as a writer. You ‘don’t write as a woman’.

The discussion then went into the area of plot, the story being about the relationship between a girl and her mentally challenged brother in a close Irish Catholic community as she comes of age. In many ways, noted Williamson, this is the traditional Irish story. It was, said McBride, a horror to me that that was the story I was going to write. She did not set out to write that story, but that was what she found.

McBride spoke briefly about her upbringing. Born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents, she moved to the west coast of Ireland when she was two. She went to convent school with all the associated bad nun experiences. At seventeen she moved to London to go to drama school as a means of escaping all of it, thinking she’d never go back to Ireland. And when she did go back she found out she had been right to think she should have never gone back!

The conversation returned to Beckett and Joyce, the two giants of Irish literature who cast very long shadows. It seems you have to get them out of your system to be an Irish writer. Another influence McBride noted was renowned Irish author Edna O’Brien. Experimenting is not done with yet, said McBride. Finnegan’s Wake scared people into moving back towards realism. But there’s an appetite in readers for brave and different books. Readers are adventurous, she said, something publishers forget. She described the nine year wait from finishing the manuscript before she found a publisher to take the book on, arguing that the increasing commercialisation of publishing houses has played a detrimental part in cutting down variety. To be a writer and a reader, she said, is to be an adventurer, a point that was welcomed with applause from the audience. Here, here, I say.

It took her six months to write three drafts in 2004, and then sent it out to publishers. Some said it was brave, and of good quality, but they couldn’t see the market for it. This went on for four years before she gave up and put it in a draw. It was a series of fortunate connections she made in Norwich that led to the manuscript getting to a brand new publisher run by people who admitted they knew very little about publishing, and even then it took a while for it to come together. Kudos to Galley Beggar Press in Norwich for picking it up; (it’s published by Text Publishing in Australia). It was reviewed positively in the Times Literary Supplement in London, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What next? Her novel in development is an evolution of the style featured in A Girl. She is most interested in indescribable human emotion. Success does not make writing any easier or harder.

In response to questions, McBride detailed the writing process for A Girl as being one more of addition that subtracting through editing. She has a goal of 1000 words a day, and starts each day by reading the previous day’s work, something Peter Carey and many other authors do too. She then picks up at the most interesting sentence and continues on. She constantly asked herself whether a reader would understand what was going on, and she knew she was asking a lot of the reader. She read it aloud a lot, particularly in the second and third drafts. The darker parts were difficult to write emotionally, but ‘you need to give of yourself, a drop of your blood’.

She said she may well do an audio book version herself, which was greeted with applause, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else being able to read it like McBride does. And Geordie Williamson, who had made an earlier reference to a well-known curmudgeonly reviewer and his praise in the London Review of Books, said the final line of his review was ‘the nicest thing he has ever written’, which gives you a measure of the status of this gem of a novel. What was his line? Wondering about McBride’s ability to back up A Girl and create a new style for a new story, he wrote: “That’s a project for another day, when this little book is famous.”

A great session. A treat to savour.

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SWF 2014 logoI am a dilly-dallier aren’t I? I’m still catching up on my SWF posts. Apologies for the delay, but sometimes life gets in the way.

On SWF Friday I went to a panel session entitled ‘Judging Women’, sponsored by the Stella Prize. Chaired by Aviva Tuffield, Executor Director of the Stella Prize; Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries (my review here); Clare Wright, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her non-fiction history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (see Lisa’s review at ANZ Litlovers); and Tony Birch, one of the Stella Prize’s judges, historian and novelist, who was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for his novel Blood.

Tuffield opened the session with a history of why the Stella Prize was created, listing the statistics in key areas which indicates the bias shown toward male authors: the way males dominated literary award shortlists and winner-lists (both in the Miles Franklin (the much publicised ‘sausage fest’ year was noted) and also in State Premier’s Awards, as well as overseas awards such as the Booker Prize; the bias toward male authors in reviews in literary journals and newspapers; and the higher proportion of male reviewers of said works. Women writers are also under-represented in school reading lists. The statistics on the Booker Prize are worth highlighting, with men accounting for circa 90% of shortlist nominees. Hence the setting up of the Stella Prize. Tuffield noted wryly that in the two years after the creation of the Stella Prize, two women have won the Miles Franklin, and she noted the all-women shortlist of last year. Coincidence? She suspects not.

Opening up the discussion to the panel, Tuffield asked Catton about the furore she created in the wake of winning the Booker when in an interview she said male authors get asked what they think, whereas female authors get asked what they feel. Catton said her experience was that it was not men ‘keeping women down’, and most often the stereotyping interview questions she was asked came from women. To her, feminism is being aware of the statistics. And being self-aware, too, because she went on to note that she had to catch herself sometimes, for when she thought about philosophers she always pictured or thought of men rather than women, as if men were the only ones capable of being thinkers. So we’re all complicit in the way women are thought of, but, she felt, ‘feminism goes wrong in laying blame’.

There was a huge difference, Catton said, between sexism and misogyny. She believes there is sexism in the publishing industry, but not misogyny. She felt there is a problematic expectation that as a woman author her writing must speak to feminist issues. Briefly outlining the way her novel is structured around twelve men who represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, she noted that had sheused twelve women the story would have been about women; using men allowed the story to be about other things, such as astrology and determination.

Tuffield turned to Wright who, when she announced to her male academic colleagues she was going to write a book about the Eureka Stockade, they said ‘what can you possibly add to the story?’ It had been done, they said. Unless she could unearth new primary sources, the subject had been exhausted. Her approach was to go back to the same archives with different questions. As a result, she came back with different answers. Women were in the records, they just hadn’t been written about before. Indeed, the book took ten years to write not because she was off searching for needles in the haystack, but because there was so much material.

Wright made fun of the fact that she is rarely asked what she feels – perhaps, she said, academics don’t have feelings?! But she is asked about gender often.

Her book is about democracy, one of the ‘big’ topics. She talked about previous experience in trying to make the documentary Utopia Girls, learning that you cannot pitch to broadcasters that you want to make a doco about women: you have to say the doco is about ‘a great Australian story’. That is the approach that opens doors.

She went on to talk about the presentation of her book in bookstores, particularly in airports, with her off-handed social media comment about tables in airport bookstores being ‘dick tables’. She would go and re-arrange the books in the stores so hers, which was usually buried somewhere in the back, had more prominence! Now, after winning the Stella Prize, her book was front and centre, so the prize is definitely working.

Tuffield noted the reaction to the second year of the prize was much different than the first. In the first year it was all about the gender question. This year the focus was on great books. This was a great time to bring Birch into the discussion. He outlined the very deliberate and considered approach to judging that chair of judges, Kerryn Goldsworthy, demanded. He said she had scheduled a full day for the final discussion of the shortlist in the choosing of the winner. Birch said he had judged other prizes but none had the same passion in organisation that the Stella Prize has.  As a result, he himself felt even more committed to the process.

Birch made the comment that the body of work read this year – 160 books! – was more complex and enlightening that he had read before. Echoing Tuffield’s need for the prize, he gave his own experience, recalling the time he had read a tiny review of Meme McDonald’s Love Like Water, which he considers a great Australian novel, and next to it was a huge two-page spread on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is all about the tragedy of male premature ejaculation!

He felt women give more to their work, and young aspiring female writers need more role models, especially as women don’t put themselves forward in the same way men do. Catton echoed the need for role models, underlining the importance of the confidence to take risks as a writer. And having read The Luminaries, and heard Catton talk about that book in another session at SWF, it is clear she does not lack in confidence (in a good way).

Tuffield asked Birch what it was like to judge fiction versus non-fiction. Was it challenging? Not in a negative sense, no, he said. Birch himself has been a historian, as well as a fiction writer, so he quite enjoyed reading across genres and forms. The judges never judged one genre against the other. It was all about the quality of the work. Someone had come up to him this year and said a non-fiction work would have to win because fiction won in the first year, but there was never any question of that. The three criterions used in judging were: originality, engagement, and excellence.

I must admit it did make me wonder: if the Stella Prize had the funds to award both a fiction and a non-fiction prize, would they do so? On the evidence of this discussion, they would not.

Tuffield noted the coincidental links between Catton and Wright’s works: 19th Century goldfields. Catton said she read a lot of 19th Century literature in preparation for writing The Luminaries, including a period in which she read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, House of Mirth, and Portrait of a Lady in succession, all novels that end in much the same way. It was both a great and heart-wrenching period, and she asked herself why women protagonists had to die at the end of such great works. She suspected it was because in those days the notion of women with eyes wide open was too threatening for society. She was, as a result, conscious when in writing a book in that style, to have women end in a position of some power, although Wright picked Catton up on the type of characters Catton chose for her women: a prostitute and a madam, arguing that in the goldfields women were a much more varied lot than these two stereotypes(!)

Overall, a very interesting discussion. Yes, it was run by the Stella Prize and tilted towards its message, but it’s a good message. A little rebalancing in those statistics is a good thing. Each on the panel had something important to add to the question of how we judge women authors. My own view is that much of the exciting writing in fiction right is coming from women. Eleanor Catton is one, to whom you can add Eimear McBride (thoughts on her SWF session coming soon), Jennifer Egan, and our own Alexis Wright. They are experimenting with all manner of things: form, style, genre, myth. (And before you jump on me, yes there are many others, and yes there are exciting male writers doing experimenting too, like Knausgard (a 2013 SWF guest) and Houellebecq, et al. To start a list like this is always doom to failure! The point is women deserve their place in our literary consciousness.

I was going to publish reflections on Alexis Wright in discussion with Geordie Williamson, but you can listen to the full podcast here.

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SWF 2014 logoI’m catching up with my SWF posts, starting with the one and only Alex Miller…

Poor Ashley Hay: expressing sympathy for Miller’s publisher Allen and Unwin, who no doubt wanted Miller to speak about Coal Creek (my review here) as much as she did(!), she opened up this session by announcing Miller had told her Coal Creek would be his last novel. When she asked him why he had made this decision, he began the first of several long and lovely stories…

We novelists have no idea what we’re doing, he said. Going on to echo Richard Flanagan’s similar thoughts, Miller said readers are the ones who tell you what you’ve done. He recently visited a women’s prison, where he spoke to a group of women – many inside for hardened crimes – who had formed a book club. He went to speak about Coal Creek. Many had read several (or all) of his novels, and one women said she had noted a powerful recurring theme in his work: the influence of the absent mother. Miller acknowledged that while this absence is true in the life of Bobby Blue, the hero of Coal Creek, Miller had no idea it was something his other novels had also addressed.

He went on to tell them about his earliest memory, of being 18 months old and whisked off to a children’s home in a taxi because his mum was about to give birth to his sister. His father was working so there was no one to look after Alex. He was in the home for one week or so, and it had obviously had a much larger impact on him that he could have imagined possible.

As he told the women this recollection he realised he was speaking with a group of absent mothers, and it hit him that their children were without their mother, for several years in some cases, and while he had lost his own mum for a week – and to an 18-month old that seemed forever – these mums were in a real sense absent from their children forever.

The women felt he had encapsulated an inner truth, that ‘a lifetime isn’t long enough to get over some things’. One asked him, ‘will I ever get over this (incarceration)?’ He realised she was asking him for a very considered response. ‘No,’ he told her, ‘but I believe you will transcend it.’

When he left the prison he thought about truth, how you write it. Suddenly it hit him, and he became quite emotional in the car, saying to himself ‘you’ve never thought about liberty, have you?’ It was, he said, time to be afraid of things again, to take on a new challenge. He started in that same moment: by deliberately taking the wrong road home, because ‘sometimes the wrong road is the right f**king road’. It was golden autumn evening, beautiful light falling through the gums that lined this unknown road. It was, he said, exhilarating. Even a dead fox on the road was a thing of beauty. He was enjoying the gift of freedom that these women had given him. He drove on knowing what he had to do, paying the women’s kindness to him forward – or perhaps backwards a little, for he now wants to pay tribute to those who have helped him throughout his life, such as his close friend Max Blatt. Friendship is an important part of his work, as is autobiographical details, but he decided to go in this new direction and highlight it further.

He then continued to subvert his publisher’s wishes(!) by recounting a rollicking story about his roller skating youth in London, which involved him trading his prized pair of roller skates for a book called Billy Bunter’s Omnibus. It was the most important book of his life, he said, and even though his family had scraped together the money to buy him those skates that he subsequently gave away, he impressed his father in the process, and a life-long love of books was founded. (This was in response to a question by Hay on the power of reading, and how reading affects Bobby Blue in Coal Creek!)

Landscape was also highlighted. The Stone Country is a place he cannot leave behind, he said. Taking glorious delight in his publishers’ angst, he finally referenced Coal Creek by saying it had taken him all of ten weeks to write, after which it was done. There was no research. It just spilled out of him. During those short weeks he felt as though he was under Bobby’s spell…. just as we, the audience, was under Miller’s during this very funny and moving session.

More from SWF2014 in the coming days…

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The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer‘Tis the season for gifts and stocking fillers and short story collections, and you could do a lot worse than wrap up a copy of The Great Unknown, edited by Melbourne writer and blogger Angela Meyer. As many of you would know, Angela has blogged for Crikey and now calls Literary Minded home. She has hosted several sessions at major literary festivals, too, including the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve read nearly all the stories in the collection, and thought I’d get something up on the blog for those of you looking for last-minute gift ideas for the readers in your life (and that includes you!)

Inspired by strange events, the macabre, bizarre, fantastical and chilling, there are many disturbing ‘delights’. Some should come with a warning not to read before bedtime. I made that mistake with Krissy Kneen’s haunting ‘Sleepwalk’, which sets the tone for the collection. In it, Brendan is concerned over his partner Emily’s nascent sleepwalking. A photographer by trade, Emily has dug out her old film camera and is stealthily pacing through their rooms in the wee small hours, taking photos of their creaking house aimlessly. Or is she? When they develop the photos there seems to be something in them:

He saw their life, or pieces of it in each of the prints, the lamp, the edge of their couch and here, a blur of grey behind it. The same blur, movement? Something too fast for the speed of the shutter? This same pale smear repeated in each of the hanging squares. And then the final image. He peered into it through her magnifying glass … The dining room near the portrait of Emily as a child. The figure was a blur, but clearer here, shoulders, arms, the crouch of legs.  

Cue another night of sleepwalking and a stomach clenching climax!

Another disturbing story is ‘The Koala Motel’ by Rhys Tate, a completely spooky tale about a missing boy and abandoned motel on a remote country road. Ron had pulled up at it because he hears a noise underneath his car:

That’s when I heard the crying. It was soft at first, but over the course of about two minutes, it grew louder, like it was moving towards me. This thin, high-pitched sobbing from someone upset. Many some sort of animal? I stood there for a while, trying to work out the source, because the crying was bouncing off the motel’s walls and coming in from every bloody angle.

The resolution is chilling, to say the least. The next time I hear a noise under my car, I’ll have goose bumps for sure!

There are several stories that deal with missing people, and strange disappearances, including ‘Her Dress was a Pale Shimmer’ by Marion Halligan. It sees Annabel, a young woman, trying to come to terms with the disappearance of her mother a year ago. Strange things happen when she goes to an impromptu dinner at a local restaurant with her Goth sister and her distant philosopher father. This is one of those stories that illumines the human condition (even if it is by the fluttering tea lights that sit on the restaurant’s table), what it means to yearn for an explanation to a deep and anguished mystery and find the answer to be every bit as mysterious. Lovely.

Speaking of philosophers, Melbourne philosopher Damon Young’s ‘Árt’ is a perfectly dark tale of erotic obsession. It sees an ex-artist, now art lecturer, grapple with a mysterious girl he calls ‘K’, who he meets at a Kubin exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. There he sees a work in ink that is not listed in the catalogue, an erotic picture in which his face appears painted into a rock. How it got onto the wall and why he is in it are questions I’ll leave for you to discover the answer to, but suffice to say this one packs a punch!

One of the highlights of the collection is undoubtedly ‘A Cure’ by Alexander Cothren. Set in a futuristic Manhattan, in the offices of Empathy International, whose slick advertisements ask consumers ‘Have you been feeling less?’ and come with the enticing by-line ‘Feel again’. Alice has come hoping for a cure for her ‘compassion fatigue’. Empathy is trialling an update to the ‘MindFi’ system, and Alice is desperate to try it. Exploring the issue of misery as entertainment, it is such a clever and taut story, brimming with poignancy, and leaves you with a searing question, one that lingers.

Beyond that, there are wonderful stories by Carmel Bird, Susan Yardley, Paddy O’Reilly, Ryan O’Neil, and… I could go on, but I’ll leave it there… except to say, as a fan of great book design, I dip my lid to Michael Vale for his thoughtful cover design, which features the head of a black swan; a ‘black swan event’ is something outside of our existing comprehension, or beyond the realm of expectations, and is thus surprising or shocking; and is thus a perfect image for such a collection.

It’s a perfect accompaniment to languid days by the pool or on the beach, or a spooky after dinner read. I’m off to finish it now, this time with the light on!

To all my readers, a very joyous Christmas and many blessings to you and yours in 2014.

 

Lisa over at ANZ Litlovers took a peek at and enjoyed a couple of the collection’s other stories too. Click here for her thoughts.

The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer

2013

Spineless Wonders

177 pages

ISBN: 9780987447937

Source: review copy provided by Spineless Wonders

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There I was all set to dive into reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell when I picked up Jane Gleeson-White’s lovely Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works. I had planned on perusing the first chapter, each of which is devoted to a musing on one work of our authors (with references to its place in the cannon, other works and a brief author biography), but just kept on reading. Along the way I compared my recollections of past favourites to her thoughts, and added many more to the TBR list. There are also contributions from many writers and other literary and artistic figures, who have provided a lists of their own favourites, many of which seem firm favourites beyond Gleeson-White’s choices.

Having attended a session on Australian Classics at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, I knew that Geordie Williamson’s book entitled The Burning Library is soon to be published, so it seemed like an opportune moment to delve into the literary history of our nation. I’m so glad I did. What’s more, in a moment of pure serendipity, I spied that both Williamson and Gleeson-White are giving a talk at the NSW State Library on Wednesday 5 December, called ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s Forgotten Women Writers’ (see here for more details and reserve your ticket for only $10). I quickly booked my place, certain that there can’t be too many more knowledgeable people to talk on the topic.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of the stories. How she narrowed not just novels, but non-fiction, essay and poetry into a representative fifty is beyond me. Each deserves its place, from Robbery under arms by Rolf Boldrewood, through to Tim Winton’s ubiquitous Cloudstreet. For all the talk of sexual bias that still exists, women have contributed so much to our literary culture, and Gleeson-White does these women proud by lovingly recounting her views of their works (many of course having written numerous works of distinctive pedigree). The past is littered with:

  • pseudonyms, used by both male and female writers too numerous to mention
  • the imprint of authors’ autobiographical details
  • relationships between authors, such as Joan Lindsey marrying a brother of Norman Lindsey, author of The magic pudding.
  • convicts – His natural life by Manning Clarke
  • bush-rangers – Robbery under arms by Boldrewood, Our sunshine by Robert Drewe, True history of the Kelly gang by Peter Carey
  • itinerant folk down on their luck – and many itinerant authors too!
  • girls and boys coming of age, as in Miles Franklin’s My brilliant career, plus others…
  • Indigenous Australians finding their voice
  • explorers disappearing – and not just in White’s Voss … Picnic at hanging rock anyone?!
  • families thrown together (Cloudstreet – in a Lamb and Pickle sandwich!)
  • tragedies, such as Grenville’s Lilian’s story, and others
  • I could go on and on… Seven little Australians, The man who loved children, Grand days, Monkey grip… somebody stop me!

The poetry of Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray, Oodgeroo Noonuccal is celebrated, as are short stories, including Henry Lawson’s The drover’s wife, as well as my favourite ‘long’ story: Storm boy by Colin Thiele. There is room for non-fiction works, such as AB Facey’s A fortunate life and indigenous author Sally Morgan’s My place which focusses on the stolen generation, and The magic pudding children’s book by Norman Lindsey.

It is a wonderful companion to all these works and a must for any lover of Australian fiction. I am now determined to search out Gleeson-White’s other book on global classics (I know it includes Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, so there’ll be at least one I’ve read!). I can’t wait to read that. I also can’t wait to hear Geordie and Jane talk about some of the books I’ve just read about and no-doubt many others, and to hear which books might appear in Geordie Williamson’s fiction-only The burning library. 

In the meantime, I’ve added quite a few of these Aussie classics to my TBR and they’ll feature strongly here over the coming year… I might even include some re-reads of old favourites too. The only difficulty is in deciding which to enjoy first!

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The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Thus begins Erin Morgenstern’s sparkling debut novel The night circus. Charming. Enchanting. Magical. Just three of the words that have been used to describe it—all of them deserved. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, two old adversaries representing different schools of magic challenge each other yet again for another of their contests to decide which of their teaching methods rules supreme. They are Hector Bowen, whose stage name is Prospero the Enchanter (Morgenstern has a love of Shakespeare, having also taught the bard at high school), and the grey-suited A. H—, whose name (Alexander) is obscured because that’s the way he rolls. Hector nominates his daughter Celia, while AH selects an unnamed orphan boy, whom he gives the name Marco Alisdair. Celia and Marco are bound to the contest and each other. They grow up knowing they are destined for the mysterious contest, whose rules are shady at best. They spend their childhoods learning magic and waiting for the challenge to begin. But the contest needs an arena and it is decided that a particular type of circus will be it. Cue the theatrical impresario Chandresh, who creates the night circus, sometimes known as Le Cirque des Rêves.

The game must be played out until there is a winner, and there can only be one winner, for the loser in these contests typically dies. So what happens if the two contestants fall in love?

The narrative is split into three strands. The first comprises short, second-person pieces that are interspersed between the main two strands, placing the reader into the action. You get to walk through the gates and enter the tents and taste the food and see the attractions. I’m not entirely sure whether this strand is necessary given the reality of the circus painted in the main strand—that of the contest between Celia and Marco. The third strand focusses on a young boy named Bailey, who lives in Concord, Massachusetts, who is trying to decide what to do with his life and who wants to leave the farm he grows up on for a life of adventure.

Drawn to an audition for a circus, Celia immediately impresses Chandresh’s clique, including her opponent, Marco: “Then, so swiftly she appears not even to move, she picks up her jacket from the stage and flings it out over the seats where, instead of tumbling down, it swoops up, folding into itself. In the blink of an eye folds of silk are glossy black feathers, large beating wings, and it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when it is fully raven and no longer cloth.”  It gives us a taste of the magical realism and surrealism to come. At this stage, Marco recognises Celia as his opponent, but she does not know he is hers. Gradually she becomes aware of who she is playing, but not before she has fallen in love with him because of the to and fro of their illusions that captivate and astound those lucky entrants to the night circus—including us!

Morgenstern writes in exacting prose that has a mystery of its own, readings as distant, luscious and cinematic all in the same moment. (Unsurprisingly, the movie rights have been snapped up already.) If there are faults, they include a sentimental end and a tendency toward slightly flowery prose in some of the romantic scenes. However, these rare missteps are soon forgotten, for the circus is a wonderland of black and white tents, with characters every bit as mysterious as the circus itself. The magical is commonplace. There is a huge bonfire that never goes out and burns with a white flame—Marco’s opening trick or ‘move’. Each tent is a different attraction, many of them created as illusions by Celia and Marco as part of the contest—and increasingly as part of their love for the other. Some are even wonderful collaborations between the two of them. There are three-dimensional cloud mazes, wishing trees, ice rooms, and the tent where Celia performs as an illusionist herself. The circus travels the world, to London, Cairo, Budapest, Lyon, Paris, Boston, New York and all points in between. Even my hometown Sydney gets a visit!

Meanwhile, Bailey’s story operates in different years, so we have a constant back and forth as the two strands are gradually brought together. Bailey is drawn into the circus by twins, Poppet and Widget, who were born on the first night of the circus to two of its performers, and who become performers themselves. The children enjoy chocolate mice, cinnamon twists and “edible paper, with detailed illustrations in them that match their respective flavors.” Bailey is unsure about his future. He has his tarot cards read by Isobel, who is also in love with Marco. She says to him: “You are part of a chain of events, though you may not see how your actions will affect the outcome at the time.” Just what Bailey’s purpose in the story is remains unclear until the climax.

This story drew me in and didn’t let me go. Long-listed for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, it’s a wonderful achievement, pure storytelling. There’s a name given to those who follow the Night Circus the world over, relying on an informal network of similarly minded enthusiasts to alert them as to where the circus has magically pitched its tents: rêveurs. They wear the black and white of the circus performers but add a dash of red to mark themselves. They are part of the circus, but not of the circus. I think most readers of Morgenstern’s novel will count themselves as members of this unique club. Me? I’m off to find a scarlet scarf…

The night circus by Erin Morgenstern

2011

Vintage

490 pages

ISBN: 9780099554790

Source: the local municipal library

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My Irish convict forebear, James Boland, died falling from a horse, (fortunately after he, like a good Irish Catholic, had numerous offspring, one of whom led to me). Perhaps that is why, when I went for my first (and only) horse ride a few years back, ironically in the northern New South Wales hinterland where Foal’s Bread is set, I was terrified of falling off. Perhaps it was in my DNA. And even though I think horses are the loveliest animals, I had since assumed that nothing would ever persuade me to get back on one again.

There has been plenty said elsewhere about Gillian Mears’s Foal’s bread—and rightly so. Recent winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction—as well as some other major Australian literary prizes, including the ALS Gold Medal—the story has an intriguing structure and narrative style, both of which I wanted to focus on given the weight of plot summaries that exist elsewhere. There is a short ‘preamble’ of some two-and-a-half pages, in which some unknown narrator introduces us to the setting of One Tree Farm and the horses that run across its bitter ground, ending with a warning, to ‘watch out you don’t cry’.

There is a troubled heart at the centre of this book. It belongs to Noah (Noh), who, when the story properly commences in 1926, is a fourteen-year old girl giving birth to her dead uncle’s baby in the creek of the farm that would, by coincidence, one day be her home. Unable to see how she might keep the boy, she places it in a butter box and pushes him off into the waters and watches it disappear, all the while knowing that though it may vanish from view, the scene will play over and over in her mind for the rest of her life. Though she has had the most appalling initiation into adulthood, she is a spirited girl with a gift for horses—in particular: riding them over high jumps. Soon she’s making waves at the local fairs, despite her itinerant father’s alcoholism.

It was while riding a horse at a local fairground that her future husband, Rowley (Roley) Nancarrow spots her. Roley is the Australian horse high-jumping champ. Though much older than Noh—and against the wishes of his forceful mother, Nin—he eventually marries Noh and takes her back to the extended family’s home: One Tree Farm. The single tree is a jacaranda, beautifully depicted throughout the novel, from ‘antique seeming grace’ through to a ‘purple cloud’. The evocation of the harsh and unforgiving landscape is something that Mears does so well.

I spent much of the time reading thinking about the narration. The preamble is an unidentified omniscient narrator, or so it seems. The bulk of the story is written in what I could only call ‘multiple close third person’. There’s also a strange widening ‘aperture’ as we move along: at first we have Noh’s point of view and then Roley’s, but after their daughter Elaine (Lainey) is born the number of points of view start to increase and by the end we are getting into everyone’s head. In lessor hands it might have been a disaster, but Mears somehow makes the flitting in viewpoints work. The reason is, of course, the power inherent in the story itself. It gripped me and wouldn’t let go. With the pain that Noah carries from her upbringing, there was bound to be trouble later in life. She and Roley share a joyousness in their initial union, but so many plans go to waste after Roley is (again!) hit by lightning and begins to suffer debilitating health problems. I couldn’t help but think of Mears’s own health battles as I read—the sadness of having to give up the thing that defines him: riding horses. But the real debilitation comes in the form of a lack of communication between Roley and Noh. There’s no outlet for erroneous perceptions and cruelling resentments. These are very flawed characters and perhaps that makes them all the more real.

The final ‘act’ of the three-part structure is a ‘coda’, which … hmmm, while lovely in its own way, may not have been necessary. Enough said; I don’t want to give anything away.

Foal’s Bread is not a ‘fun’ read—there is violence against people, against horses; there is incest; there is hardship. But all of that is perfectly architected; it is not gratuitous; it has its place. Moreover, there are moments of great joy. The exhilaration of horse jumping leaps off the page. Overall, it is a deeply affecting and rewarding read. And yes, by the end, I was wondering how I might find myself a horse and give it another go. That said, I think I’ll leave the jumps for the Nancarrows!

Lisa at ANZLitlovers enjoyed Foal’s Bread, as did Sue at Whispering Gums.

Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears

2011

Allen & Unwin

353 pages

ISBN: 9781743311851

Source: the local municipal library

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