Posts Tagged ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

SWF LogoMy favourite week of the (literary) year has arrived, with the Sydney Writers’ Festival rolling into town. The program is online at swf.org.au. As usual, it’s a case of wall-to-wall sessions for me later this week and into the weekend, but I’m easing myself into things with a one-off session at the University of New South Wales today featuring Evie Wyld, winner of last year’s Miles Franklin Award for All the birds, singing (my review here).

Authors I’m seeing later include: Brooke Davis, author of Lost and Found (my review here); Zia Haider Rahman, author of the acclaimed In the Light of What We Know, which I’m reading now and quite enjoying; Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, which I read earlier in the year and thought absolutely fabulous (I miss Mabel!); Don Watson, The Bush, another read from earlier in the year, and another stand out non fiction title from last year; Aussies Steven Carroll & John Marsden talking about creating historical fiction alongside Amy Bloom; another Aussie in Terry Hayes talking about his epic (and fabulous) thriller I Am Pilgrim; David Mitchell, discussing his genre bending The Bone Clocks (my review here), and in another session with James Bradley and others talking about dystopian futures; Ben Okri, talking about The Age of Magic; Brooke Davis (again!) and Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole; Quicksand) on sentimentality in fiction; a session on book design with the inimitable WH Chong from Text Publishing and other book designers (it’s great to see a book design panel session return to SWF); Malcom Knox, Sonya Hartnett and Kari Gislason discussing the things people hide, which, having read and enjoyed Hartnett’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Golden Boys, with its menacing underbelly, should be a fascinating session.

Phew, I’m tired just typing that! Should be great fun… and if you ever wanted to know what goes on behind the shelves at your local book store, then you can catch Evie Wyld, Brooke Davis and Krissy Kneen dish all, (what a shame this session is sandwiched between the normal times of other sessions, making it difficult to get to!).

I’ll get around to giving some round-ups of the pick of the sessions in the coming days.

All the birds singing by Evie WyldH is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldIn the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider RahmanThe Bone Clocks by David MitchellLost and Found by Brooke Davis

The Bush by Don WatsonI am Pilgrim by Terry HayesQuicksand by Steve ToltzGolden Boys by Sonya HartnettThe Age of Magic by Ben Okri


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I’ve wanted for some time to read Peter Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) back-to-back with Oscar and Lucinda (1988).  My (distant!) memories of Illywhacker was that it was every bit the classic that O&L turned out to be, but somehow it seems to have been overshadowed by the latter’s Booker Prize-winning success.  An example of this is on the front cover of my old edition where it is pointed out that Illywhacker was written “by the author of Oscar and Lucinda”!

There are some interesting parallels between them.  They both have first person to third person narrative ‘frames’.  I’ve noted with O&L that this seemed illogical, but with Illywhacker the wonderful open silences any similar concern we might have … in this story, anything goes:

My name is Herbert Badgery.  I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old and something of a celebrity. … I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar.  I say that early to set things straight.  Caveat emptor.

What a wonderful open.

The narrative frame works better in Illywhacker for other reasons too: though some of the scenes are a stretch for our first-person narrator, he does have connections and shares correspondence with other characters which makes this ‘reach’ believable.

Illywhacker is a big rollicking picaresque romp covering three generations, with helpings of lyrical ‘hyper-realism’ and a dash or two of magical realism.  There are so many story threads it’s hard to summarise the plot.  Herbert is an early Australian aviator and car seller and dreams of making Australian planes and Australian cars.  He almost secures funding but his scheme to make planes fails and he seems to give up on selling cars because none are Australian.  This notion of industries being sold or owned by Americans and then later Japanese interests rather than being our own is perhaps the central underlying theme of the novel.  When Herbert’s son Charles buys a Holden and proclaims it an Australian car, something his father should be proud of, Herbert can’t contain his anger, saying that Holden is American-owned and that the car is not Australian.

Alloyed to this theme of ownership is the associated question of national identity, how strong it is and how it places us in the wider world.  Much has changed in the past 26 years since the book was first published, though our ‘local’ car industry is still owned by the major international conglomerates.  I wonder what Carey must think of the economic situation in the US now (where he lives), the run-down of the uncompetitive US car manufacturers and the unrelated fact that most of the US government debt is owned by China…

In any event, events spiral out from Herbert’s efforts to secure the funding from a man named Jack McGrath who puts up Herbert in his rambling well-to-do mansion after Herbert crash-lands his plane into a farm next to where Jack and his wife, Molly, and daughter, Phoebe, are picnicking.  Herbert, an inveterate liar and womaniser, eyes off Phoebe as well as her old man’s money, selling him the dream of an Australian aeronautical industry.  Poor Jack dies, possibly of shame when he introduces Herbert to his business associates and the truth begins to unravel.  He comes back to haunt Herbert as a ghost after old Herbert shacks up with spoilt Phoebe.  This is poignant given Herbert and Jack’s earlier conversation where Jack told Herbert he did not favour older men with younger women.  Herbert builds a make-shift home for Phoebe (who he marries, although it turns out he already is!) and Molly out on the mudflats on land he doesn’t own, but it is not enough for Phoebe who, after bearing him two children, takes off with her female lover for Sydney.

And this is just the start of the novel!

We learn of Herbert’s upbringing, how he was taken in and reared by an old Chinese man, named Goon Tse Ying.  Ying teaches Herbert the trick of disappearing.  He warns Herbert not to use it as one of the repercussions of the trick is the making of dragons which bring evil into the world.  Needless to say Herbert uses the trick in order to impress a woman, Leah Goldstein, who becomes his lover.  While the trick impresses Leah it does indeed summon tragedy into Herbert’s life after his children try to imitate him.

Dragons and snakes form a recurring motif throughout.  Herbert’s son Charles becomes expert in the handling of snakes and then all creatures.  This skill is used by Herbert to run scams in country pubs.  It is also a talent which Charles then uses to create ‘The Best Pet Shop in the World’ in an arcade between George and Pitt Streets (reminiscent of our lovely Strand arcade) in Sydney in later years when Herbert is in jail.  Charles makes this into a success with his bare hands, but it transpires that some of the funding for the venture has come from an oil company in the US.  It seems that even pet stores have been sold off to foreign interests!

There is so much to love about this story.  The writing is Carey at his best: the historical details are vivid, the character sketches Dickensian, the descriptions of landscape lyrical.  Take for instance, [p62]:

The line of dwarf yellow cypress pines along Blobell’s Hill was smudged by dull grey cloud and nothing in the landscape was distinct except the particularly clear sound of a crow above the saltpans flying north towards O’Hagen’s.  It sounded like barbed wire.

Leah has a laugh [p209] which is “a tangle like blackberries, sweet, prickly, untidy, uncivilized…”

There are wonderful descriptions of wildlife too, glorious parrots.  (Any story that has king parrots in it is, in my view, a winner.)

And there is this advice on Sydney that Herbert gives Hissao, [p508]:

I showed him, most important of all, the sort of city it was – full of trickery and deception.  If you push against it too hard you will find yourself leaning against empty air.  It is never, for all its brick and concrete, quite substantial and I would not be surprised to wake one morning and find the whole thing gone, with only the grinning facade of Luna Park rising from the blue shimmer of eucalyptus bush.

The plot continues to spiral and I won’t try to describe it any further.  Suffice to say there are shenanigans aplenty when Herbert gets out of jail and comes to Sydney to live with Charles and the menageries of people and pets he has acquired – including his wife, Emma, who decides she’d rather live in a cage.  There is more triumph and tragedy.  There are tales of communists and smuggling.  There are deserved digs at the so-called ‘White Australia Policy’ of the mid 2oth century.  There is Carey touching on aboriginal issues too, albeit briefly.  There is Herbert’s grandson Hissao’s desperate effort to rescue the shop, which he does by securing Japanese funding, turning the pet shop into a bizarre and macabre show of people rather than just pets.  Herbert himself becomes one of the displays.  The selling off of Australia is complete – we begin to sell ourselves.

There are, of course, differences between Illywhacker and O&LO&L’s characterisation is deeper and sharper, more thoughtful – there is a lot of symbolism in Oscar and Lucinda’s characters.  These facets are to be expected in a book that focuses on two people.  Illywhacker spreads time across three generations and multiple wives and lovers.  Back stories are always fleshed out, even for minor characters.  There is a lot more ‘going on’.  But the theme of the selling out of Australian industry to overseas, of demurring to older or more confident nations, of being unsure of ourselves, comes across quite strongly.  There are a lot of characters serving the overall thematic structure.

If it has faults, say its length and its long back-stories to minor characters, they are for me easily overlooked by the richness and joy in such diversions and how Carey ties them together.

In the end you can’t compare apples with oranges.  Oscar and Lucinda is a tragic love story built upon a folly.  There is almost folly here too, but only to show the extremes with which the selling of Australian business to overseas interests is taken, to heighten the deep comic thrust of the narrative – for Illywhacker is a very funny book.  For me, Illywhacker is every bit as good as Oscar and Lucinda.  Rather than being cast in the latter’s shadow, it deserves its own spotlight.  It is a great book, Carey at his exuberant best.  It has kept me silent company all these years and it remains one of my all time favourites.

As an aside, it seems to me that Illywhacker and Steve Toltz’s Booker shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole share the same DNA.  They are both big rambling multi-generational comic tales that shine a light on what it means to be Australian, though each through their own unique lens.  (Their protagonist narrators both spend time in prison too.)  Lovers of one will enjoy the other.  What other books do you see as fitting into this particularly Australian comic story-telling cast?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and/or whether you think Illywhacker stands up to Oscar and Lucinda.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 5/5

Illywhacker by Peter Carey

faber and faber


ISBN: 9780571139491

560 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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In a lovely moment of serendipity I came across the following quote by E.M. Forster just after I started reading Steve Toltz’s 711-page A Fraction of the Whole:

“One always tends to overpraise a long book because one has got through it.”

What then should I make of Toltz’s epic?  Should I temper my natural inclination to praise such a long book?!  How can I do that?  I’ve tried, but every time I think that maybe I’ve found a reason to dislike it ever so slightly, I am overwhelmed by instant regret and swamped by all the positives.  It really is a case of more is more.

I won’t try to summarise the plot, but it’s a ripping good ‘yarn’, narrated by both Jasper Dean and his father Martin – the most hated man in Australia – whose brother, Terry, is a modern hero of the Australian public in a Ned Kelly kind of way, someone who has endeared himself to all by ridding us of cheating and corrupt sports stars.  Martin on the other hand is a bit of a hopeless philosopher, with a bi-polar-style persona that veers from introverted depression to mania filled with ideas, such as his plan to make everyone in Australia a millionaire.

It is a very funny read.  There are so many jokes that quoting a few here is surely apt to do the whole injustice, but I’ll give it a go.

Martin, a professed atheist, says (p34) that he has an “inability to make a leap of faith … Sorry, Lord.  I guess one man’s burning bush is another man’s spot fire.”

Then there is the hilarious dissecting of the games played at children’s birthday parties (p50-51).  Pass the parcel is a “game of greed and impatience.  I caused a stir when I stopped the game to read the newspaper.”  Musical Chairs is another ‘cruel game’, whose “tension is unbearable … the children’s faces are contorted in terror” … The game is an analogy for life: there are not enough chairs or good times to go around, not enough food, not enough joy, nor beds, nor jobs nor laughs nor friends nor smiles nor money nor clean air to breathe … and yet the music goes on.”

Fortunately for us readers, there are enough laughs to go around in this towering burlesque.  There is the town suggestion box, one of Martin’s great ideas, which initially brings the town together to hear its oracle-like suggestions, such as Martin’s own idea to build an observatory.  But in the end, the townsfolk begin to make suggestions about other townsfolk and what they should do to improve themselves and the whole town unravels into a sniping mess.  The observatory is built and is a success at first, but ends up starting a raging bushfire which destroys the town after its uncovered mirrors focus the sun’s rays onto the surrounding forest!

Later, we get to see the creation of ‘The Handbook of Crime’ written by Terry West, a career criminal who the brothers befriend in the local jail.  Martin edits the book, dividing it into two sections: Crime and Punishment(!).  There are chapters entitled: “Motiveless Crimes: Why?; Armed Robbery: Laughing All the Way from the Bank; Crime and Fashion: Balaclavas Are Always In; The Police and You: How to Spot a Crooked Cop by His Shoes.”

It just goes on and on, spiralling from Poland to Sydney to Paris to Thailand.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008, A Fraction lost out to Aravind Adiga’s hugely successful The White Tiger.  Of the other four shortlisted novels that year, I’ve also read Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture: see my review here.  I liked both of these books, but neither is as good as A Fraction.

I found the ending a little ponderous, Jasper Dean, our narrator admits as much, trying to come up with something insightful to summarise the life of his father and life itself.  It’s almost as if Toltz couldn’t summarise the previous 700-odd pages.  But who cares?  It’s a wonderful first novel.  Make the time for it.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz



ISBN: 9780143009528

711 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library).

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The Secret Scripture is the story of Roseanne Clear, now 100-years-old, who has spent most of her life in a mental asylum on the Irish west coast, and her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, who is approaching retirement. Faced with the impending demolition of the asylum, Dr Grene is tasked with deciding whether patients should be moved, or indeed whether some of them are fit to leave.  In the case of Roseanne, he needs to delve into why she was committed in the first instance, some sixty years prior.  He writes of her:

She is a formidable person and though long periods have gone by when I have not seen her, or only tangentially, I am always aware of her, and try to ask after her.  I am afraid she is rather a touchstone for me.

Roseanne meanwhile, has begun to write down her life’s story, penned in secret, and hidden beneath the floorboards of her room.  The first-person narration switches between Roseanne’s chronological recollections and Dr Grene’s notes as he faces both professional challenges and the tremors in his private life.  Initially, the stories of Roseanne’s early life hold sway over the drier rigours of Dr Grene as she explores her early childhood and her close relationship with her father.  However, a balance is soon found as we learn more of Dr Grene’s private life, including his fraught relationship with his wife, Bet, caused by his own infidelity.

There is a special regard between Dr Grene and Roseanne, a friendship of sorts.  Tellingly, the only real comfort he finds when Bet dies is in the presence of this old ‘touchstone’.  In turn, she wonders whether her secret scripture will be read at all, but takes comfort in the thought that Dr Grene may one day be her reader.

It seems there is no surviving documentation detailing Roseanne’s arrival at the asylum.  This changes as Dr Grene begins to find old documents that have survived in various forms in other hospitals that she was once a patient in.  Things get interesting as we receive conflicting reports of Roseanne’s life and we are forced to ask ourselves which report is true.  Does she recall everything correctly?  She admits that her memories and imaginings reside in the same place in her mind.  Are they the ravings of someone long-since banished from orderly thought?  Or are the people who have plagued her truly harrowing life, such as Fr Gaunt, the local Catholic Priest, in some way to blame for her incarceration?  Is his ‘deposition’, made on her committal, accurate?  Or are they, in some way both true – has Roseanne altered her memories in such a way as to sanitise terrible truths and therein protect herself?

Fr Gaunt is a singularly malevolent character and is expertly drawn by Barry.  Poor old Roseanne retraces her steps, including the awful role he has played in her life, stretching all the way back to her father whom she adored.  This includes several particularly harrowing events, including the murder of an Irish ‘Irregular’ by Free-State soldiers in front of Roseanne and her father.  Her father unfortunately gets Fr Gaunt involved who is so aggrieved that he dismisses Rosanne’s father from his job in the local graveyard, whereupon he is forced to take up a role as rat catcher.  This leads to a particularly horrific scene as remembered by Roseanne, in which he dispatches rats by dousing them in paraffin and throwing them into a fire.  Unfortunately, one rat escapes, and – with his daughter (strangely) at his side and watching on – the orphanage in which he is working soon goes up in flames, with young girls jumping out of storeys-high windows all alight with fire.  Roseanne recalls the scene:

… they jumped from the ledge in little groups and single, their clothes burning and burning, the flames blown up from the pinnies till they dragged above them like veritable wings, and those burning girls fell the height of that grand old mansion, and struck the cobbles. 

Over one hundred children die.  Roseanne soon has to face another horror too – the death of her father, from a supposed suicide.  After his death, and her mother’s own mental illness, Fr Gaunt encourages her, a Presbyterian, to marry a Catholic and save her soul.  She is only in her mid-teens at this point and the man he picks out for her is over fifty, a certain Mr. Brady, who as it turns out, plays a more nefarious role in her life than she allows herself to recall.   For that is the crux of her recollections – they are so painful that she seems to adapt them and belittle their misery, thinking that it must not compare to the grief of others.

Fortunately she rejects Fr Gaunt’s offer, but this only serves to rile him and have him act against her at every turn thereafter.  She gains work at a café to support her mother and finds a man, Tom McNulty, who saves her at the beach from certain drowning, and who is also a customer at the café.  However, his mother rails against their marriage, cuts Roseanne off from Tom, and has Fr Gaunt act to annul the marriage.  There is a rage that burns inside Roseanne at this point, a fury that we too share.  But things get worse as she tells of her subsequent pregnancy and how her baby is stolen at birth.  The birth is both heroic and horrific as Roseanne finds herself caught outside in a fierce storm.  Father Gaunt subsequently writes in his clinical deposition that she has killed the baby and her committal is assured.  But all is not as it seems.  We wonder: did Roseanne have a baby as she recalls?  If so, who was the father?  And finally, what happened to it – did she really kill it as Fr Gaunt states?

This is fertile territory for an accomplished writer such as Barry.  He very skillfully keeps revealing layers of both Roseanne’s and Dr Grene’s lives in such a way as to keep raising questions in the reader’s mind.  One of the main themes is that of history – can there be a single version of it, or is it merely like a collective memory and thus prone to human frailties such as imagined and misremembered events, motivations, and emotions(?)  The differing recollections and documents explore this theme well.

It all shapes up for a very dramatic climax.  I won’t reveal anything here suffice to say there are a few surprises in the gathering together of all these versions of history.  Some readers may find the big surprise a little bit stretched, even unnecessary.  Others will absolutely love it.  Perhaps it is no surprise coming from a writer whose early work was for the theatre where such climaxes are de-rigour and every character, large or small, must play their part.  I felt that in the last forty to fifty pages the book accelerated and turned from a quite lyrical and meditative enquiry into past events into almost a thriller with a sledgehammer ‘reveal’.  It felt a little bit rushed, to the point where I wondered whether I was reading someone else narrating as Dr Grene ties up the loose ends.  I lost the sense of depth in characterisation that had preceded it – which ironically seemed all the more required because of the surprises.  But perhaps that is the way people react to such sudden knowledge; it changes them, and they rush to interpret.

There is also a structural issue apparent from the off – why has a patient in Dr Grene’s care spent thirty years without him knowing the details of her history or wanting to find out prior to this forced enquiry – particularly as she is someone he has a strange affection for?  Barry does address this ‘lack of professionalism’ as Dr Grene sees it, but there is still a slight credibility gap.  Furthermore, Roseanne has spent sixty years in mental institutions during a 20th Century riddled with inhuman treatment of such people, and is now a very adept and alert centurion!  Whilst she writes that her notes ‘are my sanity’, it seems a little difficult to believe, but only if one is to be persnickety.  And in one place, Dr Grene’s medical knowledge is found wanting.  When he hears the voice of his dead wife calling to him one night, he questions whether it is adrenalin causing his physical reactions; surely a physician would know this?

If you can get past the structural issue (as I allowed myself) it is a wonderful read and Barry’s writing is beautiful.  I found myself stopping on numerous occasions to underline passages or images that particularly struck me.  Highly lyrical, he delves into the inner workings of the mind with acute insight.  The Secret Scripture was the hot tip to win the Man Booker Prize in 2008, but was beaten to the post by Aravind Adiga’s somewhat polarising The White Tiger. (Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole was also short-listed that year).  I enjoyed Adiga’s book, but it wasn’t a great book.  I certainly didn’t love it.  It had a vibrant energy which helped sustained its rage.  The Secret Scripture is definitely worthy of its Booker short-listing despite my slight misgivings, and is on a par with the winner.  It is thus no surprise that it did win the respected James Tait Black Memorial Prize & the Costa (a UK café chain) Book Award.

Interestingly, Sebastian Barry (like Paul Torday’s The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers & Marilynne Robinson’s Home) has taken a character from a previous work, whether play or fiction, to base a new fictional novel on – in Barry’s case at least twice*.  Clearly, when you’re onto a good thing – or a good character – you stick to it.  Barry has since written another play.  For those of us who enjoy great reads, we can only hope he returns to a format he is very good at.

This completes my 10 Prizes Challenge for 2010!  I think you’re supposed to only complete one per month, but I got through about eight before I realised this ‘rule’.  This still leaves plenty of other challenges to pursue though…

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Faber & Faber

ISBN: 9780571215294

312 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

* Willie Dunne in A Long Long Way (short-listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize), was the son of a fictional character from one of his earlier plays.  And Eneas McNulty, brother to Roseanne’s would-be husband Tom in The Secret Scripture appeared in Barry’s earlier The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.

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