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Posts Tagged ‘Ashley Hay’

Imagined Futures with James Bradley, Jonathan Lethem, Emily St John Mandel & David Mitchell

Ashley Hay was given a hard task with these four authors, whose works feature dystopian or alternate worlds, those ‘imagined futures’. Not because of the authors themselves, of course, but because there was so much to unpack from each book’s weighty vision of our imperilled future.
Chronic City by Jonathan LethemJonathan Lethem is an American writer who, after early science fiction works, won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1999 for his novel Motherless Brooklyn. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship (‘Genius Grant’). Chronic City is not his most recent work, but its story set in a strange version of New York in which a large tiger destroys buildings and a grey fog envelops part of the city, made him a worthy addition to the panel. The novel was named one of The New York Times’s ten best novels of 2009.

In response to Hay’s question to each of the panel, about what made their stories imperative when they wrote them, Jonathan Lethem spoke of his amazement and rage at the post-9/11 atmosphere that had taken (re-taken?) over New York City, where money had ‘gauzed over’ that horrific and galvanising event. There was ‘a fog of amnesiac displacement’. After 9/11 the city had looked both outward and inward, at the causes of the attack, questioning American geo-political stances. And here it was, only 3 years later, and it had been swept away by greed and the mighty dollar. Chronic City was a response to that.

David Mitchell, author of the genre-bending The Bone Clocks (my review here), said the original idea was to follow the life of a single 75 year old person in ‘micro stories’, with one for each year of her life. He soon realised, however, that writing from the point of view of a new born baby was ‘problematic’(!), and thus opted for a novella per decade. He wanted to explore time, deep time, and asked himself what you would pay for a Faustian pact to avoid mortality.

Station Eleven by Emily St John MandelCanadian Emily St John Mandel’s acclaimed novel Station Eleven was a finalist in the 2014 National Book Award (US). Her earlier work was in the area of crime fiction, and she said she wanted to break free from that area before she was pigeon-holed. Her story follows an amateur theatre group travelling the countryside after a flu pandemic has wiped out 99% of the population. When she began thinking about a post-apocalyptic world, she figured that the disaster wouldn’t last forever. Her novel deals not with the pandemic but with the aftermath.

Clade by James BradleyI read James Bradley’s Clade earlier this year (not reviewed). It’s a novel of ambition, following one family over three generations, well into the future, in a vastly changed environment. It has some wonderful writing, and some disturbing environmental catastrophes. He set out to write a novel of climate change, a subject that is ‘very resistant to fiction’. He wanted to link large geological time with a human story, one that had both continuity and rupture. His story echoes Mandel’s in this way, because while the world falls apart life goes on.

Hay asked whether the Dark Ages were an inspiration for any of the writers. Mandel said she didn’t need to look back. There was enough ‘economic ruination’ in post-GFC America for inspiration as to how things might look and feel.

Bradley spoke of the decline in species numbers, particularly in birds. He noted the massive decline in bee numbers. Lots of things that scientists had said were markers of real tipping points, things he put in the book, have worryingly come to pass in recent months, from the release of methane from Siberian permafrost to a change in the earth’s rotation as the result of ice melting at the poles.

Lethem also spoke to birds and how we have become disconnected from the wild in cities, giving the example of some New Yorkers’ reactions to a single red-tailed hawk, which built a nest on a co-op building in New York. Some occupants of the building were happy to see it, whereas others felt it diminished the value of their homes and wanted rid of it.

Jonathan LethemLethem then spoke of one of the most disturbing things I think I’ve ever heard. After 9/11, once the twin towers’ scrap metal had been sifted through for remains,, the metal was melted down and used to build an aircraft carrier, which was subsequently used in the Gulf War. It was as if the USA were taking the graves of all those lost and using them as a ‘sword with which it could smite’ the country’s perceived enemies. How could this type of thing happen? He recalled seeing this same aircraft carrier sail into New York Harbour some years later, and the response in his heart to seeing this weapon of war.

The World Witout Us by Alan WeismanMitchell entered the discussion here, tying together some of the other panellists’ thoughts, by asking if anyone had read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which explores the way nature reclaims and regenerates if it is left to its own devices,, and which Mitchell declared as excellent. Birds, he said, fare very well; the descendants of dinosaurs survive and thrive if and when humanity finally loses its foothold on the planet.

The Bone Clocks by David MitchellMitchell was asked by Hay about his uber novel, and rather than say he is ‘inking-in his large sheet of paper like a map’, as he did the night before, he said simply, ‘I’m not that clever,’ but he did admit to planning ahead a little more than he had in the past, placing some of his characters in ‘scenarios’, including Marinus, one of his favourites. So maybe there is a little more of the map being inked behind the scenes, so to speak.

Did actors, which appeared in several of the novels, asked Hay, provide the authors with an element of ‘performance’ they were seeking, or some sort of subterfuge? Mandel thought all characters are actors in a way. She had no specific reason for her choice other than her own experience with people she knew in off-off-off-Broadway(!) amateur theatre companies, in which to be a part meant you really loved the art because there was no way you were ever going to be paid for it. Her story did, however, feature a comic book, which allowed her extra freedom because she could use different language in it, words that characters wouldn’t.

Lethem made the point that while his book features a sit-com actor, he is an actor rather than an artist. Bradley said there is a merging of real and virtual worlds. He spoke about what was for me one of the most interesting things in his book, so-called ‘sims’, in which photos and videos and other visual records of a person are made into simulations of the person after they die so their loved ones can still interact with them. The sims are fitted with learning algorithms that allow them to learn how to better respond to their loved ones. So you can have these walking ghosts in your house. But the technology also allows loved ones to massage the sims, meaning they can wipe out the ‘bad’ traits of the person who has died! In a way, the sims provide us with a way of reincarnating us. But, like in Mitchell’s work, they are very poor representations of real humans. Something very important is lost in their construction. It’s not a way to truly live.

Hay raised the notion of hope. Is there a place for it? She liked to think there was a place for it in all of the novels. I didn’t take too many notes here, so I’d advise listening to the podcast when it becomes available, but in each of Mitchell, Bradley and Mandel’s work there is a note of hope at the end. You’ll have to read the Lethem to find out what he thinks!

It was an excellent session, with the wonderful Ashley Hay doing a sterling job: see my Saturday ‘Thumbs’ below for more on her…

Ben Okri: The Age of Magic

The Age of Magic by Ben OkriWinner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road (which I loved), Ben Okri’s latest novel The Age of Magic follows eight people on a journey to make a film documentary about Arcadia. I dearly wanted to see Okri in another session with two acclaimed Australian poets: Les Murray and David Malouf, but that session clashed with another I attended, so instead I saw him in discussion with Radio National’s Michael Cathcart, talking about The Age of Magic. The session is available to listen to online at Radio National here.

I highly recommend it. Okri is such a pleasure to listen to: measured, scholarly and playful. He read from the book and some poetry too.

Cathcart opened up by asking what a ‘quilf’ (spelling?) is. Okri said it’s ‘an imaginary real creature’ that the novel is loosely structured around. He experienced on a walk in Switzerland. They never appear before you, but ‘hover at the margin of your vision’. Such a spirit-being makes two ‘appearances’ in Okri’s novel. He later said he tries to capture the extra dimensionality of life.

The Age of Magic has several premises, said Okri. One is the idea that while we live in an age of historical times, there is also a constant ‘under-river of consciousness and being’, a magical fabric to the whole of existence. He wanted to touch upon this magic that underlies our existence. The more ostensible is eight people going to Arcadia to make a film documentary. But don’t be fooled! It’s all about the secret premise.

‘Eviling’: an anti-magical activity that is used in the story. There are real characters and liminal characters. It is full of aphorisms.

The book opens with a chapter comprised of a single sentence: ‘Some things only become clear much later.’ This began as a three page chapter, and he compressed and compressed it into one sentence which has ‘all the power of everything that has been removed’. Okri playfully admonished Cathcart for reading out this sentence too quickly, and then read it out ‘as it should be read’, which was very slowly!

One character says ‘it’s easier to be clever than to listen’. Listening, said Okri, is ‘quite close to suffering’. Learning to write is about ‘very, very deep listening’. There are three levels of listening: ordinary, deep, and ‘shockingly profound’! You have to listen. Not just to what is said, but also to what is not said. Listening stands in for ‘profound attentiveness’. Okri said ‘I’m a world listener’.

One character, Jim, believes, as we believe, that will is the key thing in life. And yes, civilisations can’t be built without will. But will alone is madness. We need something higher than will/ego.

Okri is fascinated by the making of language. ‘Live’ turned around is ‘evil’. Live is an active presence of life. Evil is the opposite of anti-growing aspect of life.

Cathcart noted there are several references to Faust in the novel. Okri said: that which we go towards compels us to change. If we are on a quest for money, money changes us. The same is true for any journey. That’s why all quest novels are about the inward journey as much as the outward journey. In the middle of Faust, there is a play about Arcadia, so it cohered with the story.

Cathcart asked about radiance, which seems an important element in Okri’s body of work. Radiance is a very difficult thing to write about, but is the necessary flip slip to the darkness. Every writer should write the other side of the coin to their principal theme. We are very focussed on suffering. There was great happiness in his childhood even when there was great suffering. There’s something about childhood afternoons that make them feel like twenty years, the glow of them in Nigeria. There is something enchanting about being life, but enchantment must come through very briefly in writing.

Okri was asked about yoga and meditation. He meditates, if meditation means to think. In the East, Zen masters talk about emptiness. In the West, we think too much, fill our heads with thoughts. We must empty our minds. Emptiness is the place from which creation comes.

One childhood experience he related was about telling stories. He grew up in a story-telling universe. Everything at that age oozed stories. A tree, a dog, even a car can drip stories. In the village, the children sat in a circle and told stories but each child had to invent a story. If you couldn’t tell some original you were kicked out of the group!

His period of homelessness in the UK, where his university founding ran dry all of a sudden and he became poor and destitute very quickly. He still managed to read and have books close to him. Reading keeps hunger at bay. You could just fall through the net in this world and nothing would catch you. This period seeded in him an understanding of need, which fuelled his Booker Prize win ten years later. ‘I wrote my way back into life’.

He was asked about Nigerian and English story-telling, whether he was synthesising both. Yes, but Nigeria needs a new kind of language to capture it. He spent years trying to find the right tone and language. He went right back to basic A-B-C, so he could use words to ‘touch’ the world. It is the weakness of the 19th century novel that it cannot capture the non-linearity of modern life.

Asked about the pressure African writers are under, he said they should not be bound to write solely the troubled African stories, of suffering, famine, bad government and so on. The writer’s primary domain is freedom, the ability to write about what they want. France has a great literary tradition, as does the UK, where there is joy as well as suffering. Publishers also constrain African writers, he said, pigeon-holing them as ‘cause’ or ‘issue’ writers, which he finds deeply unfair.

He was also asked about winning the ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’, which he explained away quite beautifully by saying the English are too uptight about sex!

Book Design, or ‘Architects of Reading’

Kudos to festival organisers for including a session on book design once again, one of my personal favourites, although it was a vastly different topic than previous years, which usually focussed on the winning designs in the annual Book Design Awards. The session was entitled ‘Architects of Reading’, and focussed on the future form of books. Poor Zoë Sadokierski spent much of the session keeping the book design institution that is WH Chong (Text Publishing) from warring with Google’s Tom Uglow about physical books versus books that might, in future, become more like apps. And not just apps, because Uglow foresees the technology allowing the story to change based on the reader’s activity. He also gave the example of a story about deception, in which every time you went back to the ‘novel’ it would change on you, or deceive you, allowing the story’s form to mirror theme. Chong said this verged on becoming a ‘video game’. Not surprisingly, Chong championed the physical book, with its ‘perfect technology’. It’s a hugely interesting area for discussion, and I would have liked more on it, but was happy to see an example of Chong’s vast marginalia!

Saturday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: an unnamed writer on one panel session whose reading went on, and on, and on… I mean the writing was good, but as an audience member you just want a little taste, particularly if there are other writers on a panel you want to hear from.

Thumbs up for: Ashely Hay. What a gem she is, a fabulous writer in her own right and a great chair of a rather large panel. She got the best out of four people in under an hour, and also fielded a rather curly question from a young girl in the audience who asked her, much to everyone’s amusement, which of the four novels was her favourite and which she would recommend to a girl of her age! Cue much squirming from Hay under the mock stare of intensity from all four writers waiting to see which of them she would select, but after much sighing she somehow managed to pick one (Mandel’s book) without upsetting anyone!

Next up, Sunday at the festival…

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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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Saturday was wall-to-wall sessions, so apologies for some tardiness on my part, but there’s much to reflect on…

There was no better way to start my marathon Saturday than to sit with Kate Grenville and Ashley Hay to hear Grenville talk about her three colonial era books, The Secret River (see my review), The Lieutenant (see my review), and Sarah Thornhill (which had won the Australian Book Industry Awards gong for General Fiction book of the year on Friday night – my review forthcoming).  Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Grenville’s colonial stories.  Michael Heyward described The Secret River as one of Australia’s most important books in Friday’s ‘Classic’ discussion, which I think, (even given his bias as head of Text Publishing), is spot on.

Hay was a fine choice to conduct the session as she had her own love affair with Dawes – the man Grenville’s Lieutenant Rooke is based on – in her book The Body in the Clouds (see my review).  She asked Kate about landscape in her works.  Grenville said that imagination can work from very little.  The Hawkesbury is similar to the way it would have been at first settlement although the land management practices of the local indigenous population would have seen some differences.  One might have to work a little harder at Dawes Point, where the southern pylons of the harbour bridge now stand.  But even here there are some small footings of Dawes’ original observatory – and ‘you only have to squint and see the water and sky’ … to which Hay suggested she’d have to squint very hard!  But ‘the logic of the landscape is still there’ and the positioning of the observatory so far from the settlement (about a mile), told her much about the character of Dawes.  In this way, any place can tell you things as a writer.  Much of Sarah Thornhill is set in an area near Cessnock in NSW’s Hunter Valley, and she told us how she had driven around the valley’s vineyards trying to find a place that didn’t have vines growing over it so she could start to see this landscape as it would have been.  Ironically, she later described her visit to post Cyclone-Tracy Darwin – in which the world was utterly destroyed with houses turned upside down and cars up trees.  She felt numbness, a ‘limit of mind’, was blind without experience, and couldn’t find the words to describe what she was seeing.  (Me thinks she didn’t squint hard enough!)  But this yearning for making the strange familiar is what the colonial settlers were preoccupied by, choosing names after places from home (New South Wales for instance).

Somehow I’d managed to go for two days at a writers’ festival and not hear a reading!  So it was nice to finally hear a short reading from the start of Sarah Thornhill.  Grenville then relayed a lovely anecdote which I seem to have heard before, about how the voice of illiterate Sarah came to her – a voice that she described as: plain; strong; and being illiterate meant no large words.  She was hiking up a volcano in Auckland and for once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in.  The voice just came to her (cue much laughter about religious experience!) and she wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag.  She brought that paper bag to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested Hay!) and read those drafted lines.  It was a fabulous thing to see the document on which the genesis (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a novel came into being.  Those first few lines, while a little different in the published work, survived pretty much intact over the – and I think I heard this right, though my ears didn’t believe it so I might have misheard – the 20-30(!) drafts she had to do.

The motivations for the two Thornhill books were discussed.  ‘Hidden things become toxic’ and shape behaviour down the generations.  These secrets must be brought up the surface and confronted before we can move on.  What happens when the secret comes out?  That was the question she sought to answer in Sarah Thornhill.  She explained the family history connections again, which have been well explored in other interviews, describing her interest as something that kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’.  Not surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.

The discussion then moved to the decisions about the divide between black and white.  Thornhill made one choice, Dawes made another.  There was a sense of yin and yang about The Secret River and The Lieutenant.  When asked by an audience member whether women have a better chance of building bridges, Grenville said possibly, though Dawes did pretty well, even though he needed the native girl to come at least as far from the other direction.  She was asked about indigenous Point of View (POV), as she had written an indigenous character in one of her earlier novels, and much like Thomas Keneally (who had done the same in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), would not write from an indigenous POV today.  Part of the reason was that she believed it wrong, another that there are fine indigenous authors such as Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance – see my review), and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria – my review).  (I know this is a sensitive topic and I agree that the indigenous authors we have now can write these stories so, so well, but I find it strange at a more general level that any author should restrict themselves in writing from the POV of another ethnicity because it’s ‘wrong’.  Authors constantly write their way into other ethnicities or socio-economic groups or cultures or histories.  How did Keneally imagine his way into the minds of Jews and Germans for Schindler’s Ark, for instance?  But I digress…)

So why historical fiction?  Grenville said she wasn’t interested in the past per se, more so in the present.  But every book is a coin in the currency of understanding our past, each is necessary and part of a larger conversation.  ‘Fiction and history need to walk hand-in-hand’, a nice riposte to all the brouhaha over the ‘history wars’ that followed publication of The Secret River.

She made a comment which I’ve heard a few times over the course of the last three days, which was that writers ‘create moments of spongy potential’, and that each reader re-creates that book in their own minds based on the person they are.  In this way books become very personal things.

She also commented that the literary establishment needs to be more flexible on the question of genre.  I found this last point interesting, considering Sarah Thornhill seemed to be marketed as ‘woman’s fiction’ – a term I loathe, but one that was echoed by a panellist in a different session I went to, who said she thought the cover of ST looked like a romance.  Why is it that ST put forward for the ‘general’ category at the ABIA?  Why was it marketed thus?  Well, perhaps the new cover for Sarah Thornhill, on the left here, will redress this somewhat.  It’s much more in keeping with the others in this colonial ‘sequence’, don’t you think?

One of the interesting aspects of writers’ festivals is that authors explain their approach to writing.  Grenville described hers as ‘shambolic’!, saying she usually writes 60-70K worth of ‘fragments’ before she sits down to see what she has and makes decisions on structure and plot.  She said it was ‘inefficient’ but worked for her.  What it does mean is there’s a lot left over after she cuts out the fragments that don’t belong.  Many of these have become short-stories, or ‘tributaries’ of the main river of story.  Out of The Secret River came four or five short stories, which I’ll have to find and read at some point, as well as a couple from The Lieutenant, and others.  There was a suggestion from an audience member to roll them into a collection.  Grenville seemed to feel that they didn’t want to fit together like that, but she left the door open.

Finally, the common thread that runs through her work?  ‘Deconstructing stereotypes’, which I though was a lovely way of describing her oeuvre, and as good an end to this muse as I can muster.

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The third book of my Sydney triptych, Sydney by Delia Falconer is a delightfully produced little non-fiction hardback, part of a series on Australian cities.  Other titles in the series include: In Search of Hobart by Peter Timms with an introduction by Robert Dessaix; and Brisbane by Matthew Condon.  Forthcoming books include Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham; Perth by Wendy Were; and Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy. 

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival where I attended a session titled ‘The Fascinator’ – Gail Jones, Ashley Hay and Delia Falconer spoke of their love of Sydney and the peculiar sense of ghosting and time slippage that occurs here.  The moderator of that discussion, Jill Eddington, commented that she thought the three books – two fiction, one non-fiction – ‘speak to each other’ much in the same vein.  And she was right.  Reading them back-to-back-to-back I really saw the thread of time slippage and ghosting.  Admittedly, it’s hard not to.  Sydney is structured into ‘themes’: Ghosting, Dreaming, Living, Sweating, Showing Off.  Each theme is divided into various entries which cover historical facts, myths, autobiography and personal viewpoints.  What is provided therein is a rich vein of thoughts and conclusions on what this harbour city is all about. 

There is a section of Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Bells quoted inside the cover and Slessor is mentioned several times throughout the book.  Also, the great story of eccentric Reverend Frank Cash who produced a book as an ode to the building of the Harbour Bridge is detailed.  Cash was mentioned in Hay’s novel The Body in the Clouds.  About ghosting Falconer writes [p21]: “There is a sense that everything has an extra layer of reflection, of slip beneath the surface.” 

The book is very reminiscent in size, cover design, and look and feel to Peter Carey’s ode to the harbour city, entitled Thirty Days in Sydney, which is a wonderful book.  Thirty Days was supposed to be the first in a series of travel books on global cities by authors, but I don’t know whether any others were published.  Carey chose to show the history and character of Sydney by a series of interconnected short stories based around his own search for the truth of the city in coming back to it from his home in New York. 

I enjoyed reading Sydney.  It’s always nice to unearth new stories about the history and personality of the city in which you live.  I’ve always considered myself very lucky to have been born and raised in Sydney and am grateful that I can still call it home.  It’s hard to pick out a favourite anecdote from so many that Falconer has provided.  There are stories about aboriginal peoples of Sydney, the first fleeters, and various colourful identities in the guise of the city’s underbelly.  There are sad stories of murders and odd deaths.  There is partying and glitz, the height of the 1980s reflected in none other than Geoffrey Edleston’s pink Lamborghini and purchase of the Sydney Swans.  There is corruption and vice.  There is the Cronulla riots.  There is the celebration of many immigrants, including the great life (and funeral to match) of a Chinese man named Mei Quong Tart who established the many successful Victorian-era tea houses across the city and who would go around dressed in a Scottish kilt and quote Scottish poetry. 

There are many literary references too.  Patrick White, Ruth Park, Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and others are discussed in terms of their relationship with Sydney and how the city influenced their work.  These sorts of insights are a treasure trove for us lovers of literature – and Sydney literature particularly.  For instance, Stead’s childhood in Watson’s Bay, (her house there has been in the news of late owing to the renovations the current owner plans to make), was the basis for her 1944 novel For Love Alone.  Park’s novel, The Harp in the South was very much based on her own experiences of grinding poverty. 

There are many anecdotes that sum up the city quite well.  One of these is Falconer’s love (and my own) for the way in which, on the Millennium Eve harbour fireworks, the word Eternity was emblazoned across the bridge.  The word is synonymous with Sydney and with another of our eccentrics, Arthur Stace, who used to chalk the word in lovely copperplate script on street corners across town very early in the mornings over the course of some 35 years in the middle of the 20th century.  It was a masterstroke, something that Carey also paid tribute to in Thirty Days.  Falconer provides the following additional anecdote: in 2001 the Sydney Council under then mayor Frank Sartor copyrighted Stace’s symbol under trademark law.  Imagine that – a symbol of freedom and joy now constricted by the bounds of licensing laws, safe for official use!  How’s that for irony?  How’s that for Sydney?  

Sydney by Delia Falconer

New South

2010

ISBN: 9781921410925

258 pages (plus additional extensive acknowledgements)

Source: purchased at SWF 2011

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The second of my three-book ‘Sydney sojourn’, Ashley Hay’s debut novel* The Body in the Clouds is another multi-protagonist story, only this time, as opposed to Gail Jones’ Five Bells (see my review) – where the characters inhabit the same single day – here we have three protagonists who live in different times.  However, the theme of interconnectedness on which Five Bells and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (see my review) are based is still front and centre as the characters’ lives revolve around the same geography – that of Dawes Point and the Sydney Harbour Bridge – and more particularly a single event. 

I came across The Body in the Clouds at the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF).  In a session entitled ‘The Fascinator’ (see my summary here), Hay, Gail Jones and Delia Falconer spoke of the sense of ‘ghosting’ that exists in Sydney and that links their three books.  I experienced this same sensation after the festival when I walked up to Observatory Hill and looked back down over the finger wharves of Walsh Bay where the festival was held – and there, slipping by, was a tall ship straight from William Dawes’ 1788.  Okay, so it wasn’t under sail, but I still got the same sense that I was seeing some sliver of the past slipping itself into the present.  This is a very Sydney thing.  No other Australian city that I have been to has it, (though I’m happy for others to correct me if they can).  I lived a few years in London where history is an ever-present thing, (my office was right next to the Roman Wall, and there was a pleasant area to sit in for lunch in a sunken garden surrounded by the remnant wall).  But because the past is ever-present there, and in so many other European cities, it isn’t surprising.  There isn’t the sense of ‘time slippage’ thatSydney has. 

So it is no surprise to me that Hay has seen the possibilities of threading together a narrative that inhabits different time periods, centring on Dawes Point, the spot where William Dawes set up his observatory in 1788 and which is now the place on which the southern end of the Harbour Bridge stands.  The three protagonists are William Dawes, Ted Parker – a man who works on the construction of the Harbour Bridge, and Dan Kopek – a banker living in London who has not been back to Sydney in the ten years since he left and who returns when his de-facto grandfather falls ill. 

The central idea that ties these characters together is ‘the body in the clouds’.  For Dawes, who spent part of his time learning the language of the local Eora aboriginal people in first settlement, this ‘body’ is the Eora’s belief that the bones of a dead person go into the ground but the body goes into the clouds.  For Ted and Dan, the body is a more literal thing: Ted witnessed the fall of the only man to fall off the harbour bridge while it was being built and survive, while ‘Gramps’ raised Dan and his own grand-daughter on the miraculous story of the day he fell from the harbour bridge and survived. 

Apart from two short capstone chapters at the start and end of the novel, as well as a third in its middle, each character’s story is told in turn in their own chapters.  There are many lovely linkages between the character’s stories, from the notion that they at various points see the fall of the body from the clouds, through to recurring motifs such as comets, dancing, white roses, Gulliver’s Travels, Eora words, shared dreams, and the notion of a bridge spanning the harbour.  As an example, Dawes is sent out to what would become Sydney in part to observe the passing of a comet which never arrives.  It does arrive, some two hundred years later, and then not over Sydney but over England.  Dan sees that comet the day he met his partner, Caroline.  And Ted, travelling from outside Sydney looking for work, is taken in by a man named Joe and his wife Joy, and hears stories told by Joe about Dawes’ comet seeking, and the three of them talk about shooting stars and seeing comets. 

In the first chapter, only 2½ pages long, we get a feeling for the craft that Hay’s writing exhibits.  She describes the men working on the bridge, how they drive in the rivets, working to a beat of time in something that approaches a dance.  There is one man who “Lost his beat, lost his time…” in this aerial dance and falls.  I love the way that dancing is used as a link between characters, but also how it introduces us to the notion of time slippage which allows an otherwise fantastical connection to exist between the characters.  When we get into our first extended chapter, focussing on William Dawes, he muses over how determined Lieutenant Tench is on getting him to dance.  Ted thinks about the dances he goes to in Sydney.  And so on. 

There are plenty of lovely sentences and images.  Joe flicks his cigarette butt into the backyard one night [p64] and “Ted watched it rise and peak and fall, dropping down in the dark green somewhere like a lost rivet that had somehow worked itself away from its steel and followed these men home.”  There is also the great image of Dawes leaving Sydney to go back to England and reeling off the names of the bays of the harbour – they are not white man’s names, they are Eora names.

There are more subtle links.  At the end of one of Dan’s chapters he is thinking of darkness in the London night, and at the start of the next chapter we find Dawes in the darkness of Sydney 1788.      

There are more important linkages than these, but to go into them would be spoiling the fun for those yet to read the book, suffice to say that they add a whole new dimension to the wonderful threads I’ve noted above, deepening the relationships between characters.      

Underpinning the linkages is not just the theme of connection, but the idea of the stories that each of carry and make and tell that give life to who we are.  Dawes hears the stories of the Eora in their language as well as the stories of settlement.  Being stranded in New South Wales with no contact from the Old World for several years, the settlement is dying for stories.  Living with Joe and Joy, Ted is exposed to a group of men who gather in their backyard each week for a few beers and story telling; Joy is hungry for stories of the bridge, so hungry in fact that she and Ted sneak in at night and climb the bridge’s arc when it is nearing completion.  And Dan has been raised on Gramps’ story and the sharing of him with his grand-daughter, Charlie. 

Stories and connections – two of the things that sustain us all, and what better metaphor for the connection of things and people than a bridge?  It’s a wonderful image and metaphor; Dawes thinks of the bridge he is building between peoples; and the bridge connects Ted and Joe and Joy, as well as Dan and Charlie and Gramps.  Furthermore, Charlie, a photographer, took photos of the bridge across a year and then mounted them above Dawes’ weather descriptions of those same days of the year in 1788.  In some of the images there is perfect calibration of weather across the years, again highlighting the sense of the past slipping into the present. 

There are perhaps some ways in which the transfer between times feels stretched, particularly when the future falls back into the past.  Dawes is out on South Head and sees a great splash that might be some 100 foot high off his point in Sydney Harbour.  Is he seeing things?  Is he seeing the fall of a future man from a bridge yet to be built?  For some reason – perhaps the size of the splash – this didn’t quite work for me.  There are also one or two minor editing mishaps.  For example: the Eora girl tries to pronounce Dawes’ name but trims off the ‘s’ because the Eora didn’t have ‘s’ in their language, they couldn’t pronounce it.  This is great historical accuracy, but it is let down two pages later where she says “Mawn, Mr Dawes”, where the ‘s’ is spoken.  But these are minor miscues in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable read. 

It would be a great book club choice.  It’s also a great companion to Jones’ Five Bells.  There is even a wonderful sense of ghosting between both books.  Jones often used the expression “here, now”, and there is one point in Hay’s novel, [p47], where Dawes is dancing with an aboriginal girl: “… she seemed to start and jump away when he stirred and reached out a hand as if to ask her to dance, here, now.” 

The Body in the Clouds was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the First Book category, as well as the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the 2011 NSW Premier’s Prize.  It has also just been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Prize for Fiction, where it’s up against some big competition, not least of all local WA hero Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, but it is worthy recognition for a lyrical, multi-protagonist story set in the Dilettante’s beguiling home town, where the magical harbour is always suggesting an interplay between us all, in this time, in all times. 

* Hay is the author of several non-fiction works, including, Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their Champions which I remember fondly.  The Body in the Clouds is her first novel. 

The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay

Allen & Unwin

2011

ISBN: 9781742372426

305 pages

Source: purchased at SWF 2011!

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Gail Jones is a cerebral writer and a consummate wordsmith.  Talking at last month’s Sydney Writers Festival about her novel Five Bells she was asked whether the ‘literariness’ of a book is important to her.  Her reply was an unequivocal yes.  The Dilettante’s kind of writer!

Jones spoke about the genesis for the work.  She was on a late night ferry and the words of Kenneth Slessor’s famous poem, Five Bells, came to her.  The poem was written as an ode to cartoonist Joe Lynch, who fell from a Sydney ferry and whose body was never found.  Jones said she could well imagine the poem being written just after the event so immediate was its sense of grief, but noted it was written twelve years later.  The ‘persistence of grief’ is something that she finds quite powerful – ‘you think you’re done with it, but the past keeps coming back.’

The way grief and memory inform the lives of the four characters whose lives are drawn together on this single day in and around Circular Quay is the cornerstone of the book.  It is like, said Jones, the wake of a ferry – the way water is churned out and then eddies back in on itself, returning and revolving.  Time and memory operate in the same way.  Slessor himself, in his notes on his poem said that time was like water rather than the tick of the clock.  Pei Xing, one of the protagonists of the novel, recalls a day when, as a girl, her father told the story of The Overcoat, how that story adds to the memory of the day’s other events.  She thinks: “It was there, years later, like breath on a plane of glass, a human trace to see through.”

The wake of the ferry, the way memories fold back up to the surface of our life, form not just a thematic premise for the book, but they also form the basis for its structure.  Here is Jones’ cerebral mind at work.  The story starts out with the arrival of the four into Circular Quay on this sunny Saturday, then, like the ferry wake, folds back to their individual starting points that day, then comes back through the day in a lineal progression.  But always through this progression the memories of past events and backgrounds constantly churn to the surface.  It’s a wonderfully symbolic structure.  It works on its own, but knowing why she chose to fashion it in this way gives it extra meaning.

Of course when you write a story that takes place in one day, particularly one in which the poetry of the prose is a strong feature as it is here, then you immediately place your work alongside other great ‘single day’ works, such as Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.  To me the particularly poetic character of Jones’ prose sets it up against Mrs Dalloway quite markedly.  There are other links between them too.  The passage of time is central to both books.  ‘Five bells’ is one of the half-hour marks of an eight-bell-long four hour watch on ships.  In Mrs Dalloway we have Big Ben marking out the hours (which was Woolf’s original title for the book, so well utilised by Michael Cunningham in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours).  There are other similarities too, but I won’t go into those as that will risk others’ enjoyment of them, but Jones said she was aware of borrowing from those books.

The other thing that I remember from reading Woolf’s novel is just how vacuous and unsympathetic the characters in it are.  This brings me to the four protagonists in Five Bells, each of whom are new arrivals inSydney.  Two of the four, Elise and James, grew up for a time in the same class in school in remote country town inAustralia.  They were teenage lovers, and now, both inSydney, have agreed to meet up.  When they were in school they shared a teacher who wrote unusual words on the blackboard, one of which was ‘clepsydra’: an ancient water clock, again reflecting the confluence of time and water.  It’s their secret word, and it’s a lovely reflection of Slessor’s ‘time as water’ observation.

James is Jones’ first extended male point of view protagonist in any of her novels.  He is a man who cannot let go of his tragic past, a past that even Elise is unaware of.  Jones said she was keen to make sure he had some form of progression, some change throughout the day.  I think she manages this, albeit somewhat obliquely (more on obliqueness below), for he decribes himself as ‘unconnected’ at the start of the story, but by the end – without giving the game away – he is in a way very much connected to the others.

Then there is Catherine, an Irish journalist, who leftDublinin part because of the death of her heroine, Veronica Guerin, the real-life journalist assassinated after she revealed the truth about the drug trade inDublin.  Catherine is also struggling to cope, in her case with the death of her brother.  Jones said that writing often is generated out of a sense of loss.  We all lose people, places, childhoods, she said.  Jones is a great supporter of PEN, and wanted to pay tribute to the heroics of writers including journalists and translators.

The fourth protagonist, Pei Xing, is a Chinese immigrant, survivor of the Cultural Revolution.  Jones said she is the moral centre of the book, and it is easy to see why.  She travels from her home in Bankstown, across the harbour to visit someone from her past every Saturday, someone to whom she gives forgiveness when such forgiveness seems impossible.  Her scholarly parents were abducted and killed while she was young and she herself is later imprisoned.  Her father was an interpreter and there are many references to interpreters in the story, including many references to Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.  The theme of translation was something Jones wanted to portray as part of the way we all connect with each other, and, I believe, how we connect to ourselves.  Pei Xing’s ability to sense the future is used in a lovely way to offset the potential darkness in the story.

The four characters are drawn together by a fifth in an oblique way.  Jones said she wanted to study the resonances between people, those interconnections, in the same way that the peals of a bell reverberate and speak to one another – which seems spooky when I think that the very same thing was the theme of my last read: David Mitchell’s wonderful Ghostwritten (see my review here).  When we first meet James, he thinks, [p4]: “So much of the past returns … lodged in the bodies of others.”  The fifth character is a child.  Children are symbolic; each of us as adults carries the child within.

When asked by one audience member about the ‘lack of tension’ in the multi-protagonist structure, Jones said not all meaning lives in plot.  Switching between characters creates risk, she acknowledged, but ‘plot’ was not the most critical thing in the book.  I found each protagonist weighty enough to sustain my own interest.  Perhaps because I knew the symbolic underpinnings before I read the book I gave it a little more ‘room’ in this regard, but each of the characters has a depth to them.  They are sympathetic.  We care for them.  How Jones creates such depth in four characters in only 216 pages is to me a remarkable thing.

I have made mention of the poetic nature of the prose.  There are wonderful descriptions of the iconic Sydney Opera House andHarbourBridge, but particularly the white shells.  Jones eschewed the obvious ‘sails’ simile because ‘cliché is the enemy of good writing’.  She spoke of the need not only to be different, but also to develop images which were culturally relevant to the background of each character.  So for Pei Xing, the Opera House looks “like porcelain bowls, stacked one upon the other, fragile, tipped, in an unexpected harmony.”  James sees them as teeth, whose “maws opened to the sky in a perpetual devouring”.  Catherine sees them as petals of a white rose.  Elsewhere, the shells are described as a fan of chambers; meringue peaks; ancient bones; origami.

There are some lovely links between characters too, the things they see, the people, the music of a didgeridoo player.  There is also a recurring motif in the form of poeple waving to each other in greeting or farewell which I think is a subtle masterstroke – reflecting both the waves of the harbour’s water and the theme of connection between people.  It’s wonderfully done.

Following on from this are other echoes, most notably the use of some of the images of Slessor’s Five Bells.  Ellie thinks of ‘combs of light’ when she watches the ferries come and go at Circular Quay – an image used by Slessor.  There is also an echo of the wonderful line ‘ferry the moonfall down’.  And maybe there are others I have missed.  It is subtle and well done.

I said above that Jones is a wordsmith and part of the joy of reading Five Bells is in coming across unusual words, like: insufflation, susurration, brecciated, betoken, and so on.  There are also wonderful images, like an ‘apron of light’ spilling from a kitchen.  Wonderful.  Woolf would be proud.  There are perhaps a few instances where it didn’t quite hit the right note for me; Jones said she reads a lot of poetry and finds its ‘obliqueness’ attractive, and occasionally the images veered a little too much to the oblique rather than concrete.  Still and all, it is a minor quirk.

Five Bells is a highly enjoyable read.  It ponders in a deep, sensuous, and dare I say ‘resonating’ manner the connections and reverberations between people, the strength of memory and grief – how they alter lives, for better and for worse.

This is the first of a three-book run I’m taking on after attending another session on Sydney in which Gail Jones, Ashley Hay and Delia Falconer spoke about their love of Sydney and the interconnectedness of their books.  (See my musings on that SWF session here.)  Next up another multi-protagonist novel set in Sydney: The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay.

The Dilettante’s Rating: I’ve decided to stop giving marks for reviews.  It’s fraught with difficulties and is, in some ways I think, unfair to reduce a whole novel to a mere number, much as it is a neat idea.  I started using them because my musings tend to be long, so I wanted to give readers an opportunity for a snapshot view, but that, perhaps, perpetuates the sense of ‘reduction’ that I now want to avoid.  Let’s instead focus on words.  (I reserve the right to change my mind though – I’m a Libran after all!)

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Vintage

2011

ISBN: 9781864710601

216 pages

Source: purchased (and signed!) at SWF 2011

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Session #99: ‘The Fascinator’: Gail Jones, Ashley Hall, and Delia Falconer in Conversation on Sydney:

Another great panel discussion marshalled by Jill Eddington, this time on Sydney and how it speaks to three authors whose latest books are set in or are about the harbour city.  I must confess I have not read any of these books yet (sigh), which, for a Sydney-sider like my good self is a bit poor, and after hearing each talk about their work it seems like even more of a shortcoming. 

Gail Jones has been nominated for the Miles Franklin Award three times.  Her latest is Five Bells is a story of four adults and a child whose lives converge on a single Saturday on Sydney Harbour – specifically around the Quay area. 

Ashley Hay has written several non-fiction books, (I have Gum on my shelf, one that I like particularly).  Her first novel is The Body in the Clouds, which has three different people in Sydney in different time periods (one of whom is William Dawes) witness the same amazing thing: a man falling out of the sky.  It sounds like a great premise for a novel! 

Delia Falconer needs no introduction, but whereas Ashley has gone from non-fiction to fiction, Delia’s latest, Sydney , sees her go the other way.  (I must admit to thinking of Peter Carey’s wonderful little book on Sydney, called Thirty Days in Sydney, which I highly recommend.)

One of the interesting points that Jill Eddington made at the start is how the three books speak to the others, and how they might be read as a triumvirate (I feel a possible reading task for the Dilettante coming on!).  Jill asked them were they aware of each other’s work.  Ashley had read a proof copy of Gail’s story.  Gail knew of Delia’s book after exchanging emails with her about Kenneth Slessor’s famous Sydney harbour poem Five Bells, which they both love.  Delia was delighted in writing a non-fiction book not to have the anxieties that a fiction author might have when they know another author is writing about the same thing.  Ashley said that she had the unnerving reality of knowing Kate Grenville was writing about Dawes too, and indeed Kate made contact with her and they discussed their projects, which she was glad about as she could see that while William Dawes features in both their novels – being the focal point of Kate Grenville’s excellent The Lieutenant (see my review here) – she also saw that they were writing vastly different stories. 

The authors then spoke about the haunting that seems to live within Sydney, the sense of time slip, an obvious influence for Ashley’s book.  Gail said the origins of Five Bells were in the haunting Sydney harbour ferry crossing the harbour in darkness (which made me think of another well known poem, Late Ferry by Robert Grey).  For Gail, there is this sense of the brash light and modern structures but there are dark underpinnings, there are always currents moving beneath the city.  There is this sense of slippage. 

Ashley loves the harbour just beneath the harbour bridge and the bridge itself becomes a character in her book.  Ironically, it was in moving to Brisbane that allowed her to enter into her own imagination more which gave her the freedom to finish the story. 

Delia spoke of the sense of loss that underpins the city, the loss of Eora in the 1789 smallpox epidemic.  She too pointed to the layers in the harbour and spoke of how the ‘fascinator’ of the session’s title spoke to her not just of the brash hat worn by ladies at the races but of a bewitching character she had read in a story that was known by such a name. 

Ashley thought that Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow which she read in formative years (didn’t we all?!) is to blame for all this time slippage, saying that to her that Park’s story was real.   There is a sense in some Sydney streets that you could look down them and not only see, say, the 1800’s, but actually feel like you are in the 1800s, so powerful is the undercurrent. 

The Rocks is one such place – the setting, of course, of Playing Beatie Bow

Gail said there is a wonderful record, I believe she said in the State Library, of photographs of buildings before they were demolished – ny building that was demolished was recorded in a lot of detail.  The photos stretch back to 1890’s – a boon for novelists seeking a streetscape of a by-gone era. 

There were research gems for each author.  Delia spoke of Reverend Franck Cash of Christ Church North Sydney who wrote an ‘insane’ book about the demolition of Milson’s Point to make way for the bridge when it was being built.  He had photos of ‘ghost’ buildings in the act of falling down as they were being demolished. 

For Ashley, going to London and being able to flick through William Dawes’s original notebooks was thrilling.  They are now online too. 

Gail said that she had a dinner with Kate Grenville in London when Kate was reading those same books at another time – a small world!  Gail spoke about her Chinese research – one of her characters in Five Bells is a Chinese woman.  Gail spoke to survivors of the Cultural Revolution when she was in Shanghai, as well as reading many accounts of that time.  Her character comes to Sydney with that weight and shows strength to carry it forward. 

Of course, the harbour is the focal point of Sydney and is that way in these books too (no matter how hard Delia might have tried to avoid it at first!). 

Delia thinks the harbour is so suggestive.  There is a ‘wateriness’ about Sydney.  It’s there in the tides too.  She feels the harbour is a mirror for us. 

Gail said the harbour is a stage – a ‘place for art’.  She tried in her novel to recreate the novelty of those iconic things such as the Opera House and the bridge which many Sydney-siders take for granted (not me!).  Ashley rounded off proceedings by saying an apt tribute to Sydney Harbour is the fact that it is used as an (international?) measure for an amount of water.  In the recent Brisbane floods, she became very aware of ‘Syd Harbs’ – how many Syd Harbs were flowing down the Brisbane River. 

I think it might be a nice future project to read all three and see if Jill was right – whether these three books, two novels, one non-fiction, do indeed speak to each other…

The D!

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