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The Bone Clocks by David MitchellSoon there will be a game called David Mitchell Bingo. Kaleidoscopic narrative with multiple interlinked stories? Check. Characters from previous novels? Check. Wit? Check. Metafictional jokes? Check. Invention? Check. Genre leaps? Check. Future dystopia chapter? Check. Intricate plotting? Check. Entertainment? Check. Our interconnectedness? Check, check, check!

Although of a slightly different ‘flavour’, The Bone Clocks is structurally of the same mould as Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. It has six interlinked stories following the life of Holly Sykes, told in first person present tense by five different narrators, two by Holly herself and four by other people in her life. Each chapter is set in a different time period and setting. There’s Holly as a rebellious teen in Gravesend, Kent, in 1984; the deceitful Hugo Lamb in Cambridge University in 1991, who meets Holly in a Swiss ski village; the war-addicted reporter Ed Brubeck in 2004, childhood friend of Holly and now her husband and father to Aoife; the utterly delicious Crispin Hersey, a once successful author intent on taking revenge against his harshest critic in 2015; the Horologist Marinus in 2025 New York City, who in a previous incarnation treated Holly as a girl and now asks her for help; and finally Holly Sykes, living in the post-apocalyptic ‘Endarkenment’ in 2043 on the west coast of Ireland.

Threaded throughout is an underlying Science Fiction or Speculative Fantasy plot about a war between the immortal ‘Atemporals’, on one side the (good) ‘Horologists’, on the other: the (evil) ‘Anchorites’.  ‘Bone clocks’ is a term given to mere mortals like Holly by the Anchorites. The Horologists are pure immortals, either ‘sojourners’  or ‘returnees’, working to the ‘Script’; while the Anchorites are soul vampires, prolonging their lives by decanting the souls of children, which becomes the Dark Wine they drink every three months in the Chapel of the Dusk to stave off ageing. The Atemporals have all sorts of powers, including telepathy (‘subspeak’); ingressing into, and egressing out of, people’s bodies; freezing people through ‘hiatus’; redacting memories. The Anchorites can also summon the ‘Aperture’, a portal device. The Horologists failed in their ‘First Mission’, an attempt to destroy the Chapel of the Dusk and the Anchorites, and are preparing a second attack.

Still with me? There’s no doubting Mitchell’s storytelling ability. His narratives rollick along with three dimensional characters and intricate plotting. It’s all very entertaining. The bad boy of British letters, Crispin Hersey, with his cynical takedowns of other writers and critics at literary festivals, is an absolute scream. Living off the early success of Desiccated Embryos (Dead Babies by Martin Amis?!), he doesn’t mind referring to himself in the third person. His new novel, Echo Must Die, is ripped apart by critic Richard Cheeseman, who was once a friend in their Cambridge days. Cheeseman could be commenting on The Bone Clocks when he writes: ‘The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look’, and, ‘What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’ Crispin (and Mitchell?) counters with, ‘in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre.’ These playful metafictional jokes are great fun.

There are interesting Australian influences in this location-hopping novel (the only continent we don’t go to is Antarctica). Crispin meets up with Kenny Bloke, a Noongar poet, loosely based, I suspect, on Kim Scott (whom Mitchell mentions in an interview section at the rear of the book, and whom Mitchell met at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2011). Crispin is trying to win the Brittan Prize, which sounds suspiciously like the Booker Prize because it has just been opened up to American authors. In The Bone Clocks, Nick Greek, a US author, wins! And Kenny Bloke thinks it was very well deserved. (I can’t decide whether ‘Kenny Bloke’ is a hilarious name for an Aussie author, or lazily demeaning!)

Crispin and Holly appear at the Hay Literary Festival, then run into each other at the Perth Writers’ Festival, and then again on Rottnest Island. Holly, whose spiritual memoir The Radio People became a bestseller, is able to tune into voices. And there are many voices on Rottnest Island. She tunes into the Noongar Aboriginal people, and I wondered what Kim Scott made of Mitchell writing as a Noongar ancestor being as Holly narrates:

Wadjemup, they called this island. Means the Place Across the Water. … For the Noongar, the land couldn’t be owned. No more than the seasons could be owned, or a year. What the land gave, you shared. … Whitefella ship us to Wadjemup. Chains. Cells. Coldbox. Hotbox. Years. Whips. Work. Worst thing is this: our souls can’t cross the sea. So when the prison boat takes us from Fremantle, our soul’s torn from our body. Sick joke. So when come to Wadjemup, we Noongar we die like flies. 

Not so for the immortal Anchorites, who recruit potential newcomers with this sales pitch:

What is born must one day die. So says the contract of your life, yes? I am here to tell you, however, that in rare instances this iron clause may be … rewritten.

Death and immortality is one of the key themes of The Bone Clocks. It is interesting that the oldest Horologist, now known as Esther Little, otherwise known as Moombaki, is a Noongar woman, who has lived for thousands of years. And the Horologists don’t go across the ‘Last Sea’ where the souls of dead bone clocks end up. It’s a nice echo of the Noongars’ Wadjemup history, and shows Mitchell is a thoughtful writer and plotter.

An adjunct of the mortality theme is a predacious theme, with both Anchorites and mortals eating future generations. The final story is set in the post-apocalyptic future, the so-called ‘Endarkenment’. There are electricity, food and medical shortages, ration boxes, security cordons, and the Chinese Pearl Occident Company (POC) rules everything it seems. (There have also been pandemics of ebola, a disturbingly prescient element given current events in West Africa.) When the POC removes support for the Irish ‘Lease Lands’, the jackdaws take over, with lawless chaos and an every-person-for-themselves mentality. The young look at the older generations, like Holly’s, as future eaters. It’s a bleak and terrifying future vision.

With Mitchell you’re often left feeling you’re reading several novels in one. That’s certainly true of The Bone Clocks. There are passages that add details that don’t seem necessary, in which you wonder whether he is paying attention to a minor character because he wants to use that character in a future story. More troubling, though, is the lingering question of what it all means.

After some thought, I’ve decided there is a serious point here, that of immortality gained through predation, of the rich and privileged eating the future. I enjoyed The Bone Clocks immensely, and I admire Mitchell’s writing. His legion of fans will love it. Fans of Murakami and China Mieville will love it, too.

But there are some cracks in the edifice. Mitchell burst on the literary scene with Ghostwritten, perhaps still his best, and certainly most cohesive, work.  It introduced us to his great unifying theme: interconnectedness. He talks of writing one giant ‘uber’ novel, and it’s great fun identifying the characters who have appeared in previous novels (characters from Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet appear here). The question is, if all his novels are based on this idea, will they all begin to sound alike? (I’m not hugely surprised The Bone Clocks did not make the Booker shortlist.)

Nevertheless, when the next Mitchell novel comes out, I’ll do what I did this time: run to the book store and rub my hands with glee at the expectation of the reading experience to come. I know it will be entertaining. And I’ll find out whether my David Mitchell Bingo idea has any legs or whether he surprises with something new.

There are plenty of Mitchell believers out there. Ursula Le Guin praised The Bone Clocks at the Guardian here.

Carolyn Kellogg loved it at the LA Times here.

James Wood offers a more circumspect assessment at the New Yorker here:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

2014

Sceptre

595 pages

ISBN: 9780340921616

Source: purchased

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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 logoIt’s ‘thinking season’, as the SWF advert reminds us, and there was much thinking going on today at the six(!) sessions I got to.

Earlier this evening I had the pleasure of listening to the very erudite, engaging and funny Eleanor Catton speak with Steven Gale about her Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries (my review here). Catton opened by talking about the delivery of the manuscript, some two years late!, to Granta, her publisher. It wasn’t until she wrote the final scene, which appears near the end of the novel, that she could see the whole picture of the structure coming together. The next day she felt as though she had shed twenty kilos (I know what you’re thinking: that MS probably weighted that much!). For a brief time she did not experience her fear of her own mortality, though she reassured us this fear has since returned(!).

Looking back on the person who wrote the novel now, she said, is a confronting thing, although she’s still ‘on-side’ with The Luminaries. She sees a different person when reading back passages now, and wonders how confronting thinking of these early works will be years down the track. Her first novel, The Rehearsal is for her very confronting because she was so raw (ie, young), when she wrote it.

Asked about her connection to the west coast of NZ where the novel is set, she said she has had family living near Hokitika and relayed a very humorous story of a family cycling trip she made when she was 14 to that region. Cycling over high passes is hard yakka, and this hardship makes you connect to landscape in a much stronger way than if you were passing through it in a car. That is one of the things she likes most about New Zealand: the best views you can’t see from the road. It was on this trip as a 14-year old that she first had the idea of writing a mystery set in the goldfields. It was telling that she mentioned here that it was pleasing looking back from the age of 28, because 14 is half her current age, and that was mathematically pleasing. Anyone who has read the novel will understand the waning structure and how each section is half the preceding one. So when she sat down to write the story, it was the landscape and the township of Hokitika, so beautifully depicted, that came to her first.

In speaking to the question of authenticity in the voices of the Maori and Chinese characters she admitted one of the inventions she made was in using Chinese, who in real life arrived a few years after the story is set. She found the device of using the opium as a tool to set up disappearances and altered states of mind too attractive, so included the Chinese characters.

She spoke at length about the zodiac ‘conceit’ of the novel, as well as its construction, saying she had asked herself ‘wouldn’t it be cool if she could write Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express in reverse, starting with the twelve characters, and later made the point that she thought of the novel as a coming together of 19th Century fiction with 20th Century crime fiction, or, put another way, the coming together of Murder on the Orient Express with The Brother’s Karamazov.

People have discussed the archetypal characters of the story, given they are governed by the stars. Was this limiting? No, Catton said. She gave the example of how Gemini is associated with communication, and so she assigned her Gemini character with the role of the local newspaper publisher. There’s a huge difference between archetypes and stereotypes, she said. Archetypes are shadowy, and take many forms, while stereotypes are one form only. So writing archetypes was actually liberating, making the point also that she liked to paint herself into a corner with the story to force herself to find the most creative solution.

The idea of ‘relationality’ appealed to her: how people change depending on their surroundings, including how a person can be altered by the people around them, how people bring out in the worst in some people, but the best in others. The question of will versus fate was a key underlying question for Catton, and she sees paradoxes in both. It was also important to use the theme of fortunes being made on the gold fields given the fortune telling connotations of astrology. And she noted the importance in drama of what Aristotle highlighted in his Poetics: reversals and discoveries, how they are the most important things in ‘story’.

Gale asked her about the use of 19th Century language, and she made the humorous observation that she started out ‘all excited’ with using it and used less of it as she went along (she had earlier made the extraordinary point that she doesn’t redraft). She immersed herself in 19th Century literature, marking out sentences and dialogue and turns of phrase, which she then re-read over and over until they seeped into her writing organically. She read for one and a half years, and then spent six months finding the opening sentence(!): trying to get the right ‘voice’. Fortunately, she said, laughing, the process sped up from there. Influences included a long list of authors, including Dostoyevsky, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, ‘some’ Dickens, and then a host of crime authors. Otherwise, her reading is very eclectic, and finds her story ideas come to her mainly from non-fiction. Overall, she wanted to write an antipodean Victorian novel.

Her writing process is fascinating. She works a full day, getting up and setting herself a target and trying to get on with it, though often finds her frustrations due to a perceived lack of progress crucial fuel for a final hour of productivity. She’s a great believer in the notion that an author can start a story too soon; it’s important to know your story before you being, she said. After dinner she reads her day’s output aloud, including to her partner (who is a poet). Reading it aloud enables you to catch many things that would slip through. When asked about Dostoyevsky’s view that the artistic ambition is about suffering, she said yes, it is, because until a work is done it is a failure. (She also made the observation that Dostoyevsky was a Scorpio, so it stood to reason he would say such a thing!)

There were many other insights into craft, Hokitika, the zodiac, and so on. What I, and I’m sure most, in the audience came away with is the view that Eleanor Catton is a hugely impressive talent, mature way beyond her years. She is confident, collected, warm, thoughtful and very funny. And there is also a hint in her method of working of the burning desire that must fire in the soul of any writer tackling such ambitious works. I suggest you listen to the podcast when it goes up, to hear some very funny anecdotes, including an intense debate Catton had with friends in a bar about whether mercy or justice was more important (in response to a question on the Briggs-Myers personality test). In short, they each found the other’s answer to be couched in their own viewpoint of what mercy and justice meant, but they had to have the at-times tearful debate, which ended in the gutter after the bar closed, to realise their positions where mirrors. But they could only get to this realisation by having the debate. It was clearly thinking season that day!

A fascinating session. I’ll definitely be checking out Catton’s The Rehearsal soon, and can’t wait to see what she does next.

More from the festival over the coming days…

 

 

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The luminaries by Eleanor CattonWinner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a wonder. It succeeds as both a conceptual work, based on astrological signs and charts, and a thrilling set of mysteries, all of which are interrelated.

Set in the mid-1860s gold rush in New Zealand, the story commences with Scot Walter Moody arriving into Hokitika on the western coast, seeking to make his fortune in the nearby goldfields. On the night of his arrival he stumbles into a gathering of twelve men in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. The men are from various backgrounds and classes, and Moody slowly comes to see they are all there for some kind of council.

They have come to discuss a series of unsolved crimes that, to an outsider, they might seem involved with. A successful young digger has disappeared. A whore has attempted to take her own life. And a hapless hermit who is fond of drink has been found dead in his cottage, surrounded by a fortune. Moody himself has a tale to tell, too, for he has witnessed something—an apparition of some kind?—on his stormy voyage into Hokitika that has shaken him to the core. He recalls the scene thus:

What had he been thinking of? Only the cravat, the silver hand, that name, gasped out of the darkness. The scene was like a small world, Moody thought, possessed of its own dimensions. Any amount of ordinary time could pass, when his mind was straying there. There was this large world of rolling time and shifting spaces, and that small, stilled world of horror and unease; they fit inside each other, a sphere within a sphere.

Each of the twelve assembled men has their own astrological sign. The shipping agent Thomas Balfour, for instance, is Sagittarius. The Maori greenstone hunter Te Rau Tauwhare is Aries. Each of their personalities is set down in accordance to their sign, and their actions are likewise governed by the position of the planets and other astrological influences on the days of the key events. (Other characters are linked to planets, with related influences; Moody’s influence is reason. The dead man, Crosbie Wells, is Terra Firma.)

The story is divided into twelve Parts, each of which is preceded by a chart to show the position of the planetary influences in the various astrological signs. For instance, in Part One, set on 27 January 1866, we have Mercury, Mars and Jupiter in Sagittarius (Balfour’s sign). And it is Balfour who first engages with Moody and begins to tell him some of the story.

Each Part has a set of chapters, and each chapter has a quaint introduction, which start with the words ‘In which’. The first chapter is entitled ‘Mercury in Sagittarius’ and is described thus: ‘In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.’

The first Part is 360 pages long, a page for each degree of a circle, ‘a sphere within a sphere’. Subsequent Parts gradually reduce in length, like the waning of a moon, until the chapters are no more than a page long. Meanwhile, the introductions to each chapter become, in the latter Parts at least, longer, waxing as we near the conclusion.

The danger with high-concept novels, as Catton herself acknowledges, is that they risk becoming slaves to the concept and fall down on the level of pure story. The more elaborate the scaffolding, the higher the risk. But story does not suffer in The Luminaries. You could ignore all of the astrological elements and enjoy the story as it stands and as it is written, with some of the well-established Victorian tropes, such as opium dens, a fallen woman/whore, and séances and the supernatural. The prose is assured, and written in classic Victorian style too, from flamboyant character names and descriptions right down to the missing letters in the word ‘d—ned’.

It’s a real page turner, with judicious revelations of relationships and past actions that have contributed to the three events the council has come to discuss. There are lies, deceits, tricks, intrigues, conspiracies, conmen, mix-ups, espionage, rumours, revenge, secrets, promises made and broken, murder, adultery, blackmail, and strange coincidences. And there is, buried in the many revolving tales, the love story of two soul mates. Best of all, it’s fun to read.

Catton manages the panoply of characters with their interwoven pasts with aplomb. They are not stereotypes, but rather have the depth, complexity and contradictions of us all. They have almost Dickensian names: there’s Reverend Devlin, a mercantile ship owner named Carver. And Catton delves deeply into each of them, their physical descriptions, mannerisms, foibles and outlook.

There are interesting themes at play: greed and exploitation; many kinds of love (familial, of a companion, of a lover); honour. There is also the question of whether we have free will or act in accordance to some higher, preordained influence. Perhaps it is both, for the omniscient narrator, in explaining a shift from Aquarius to Pisces, observes ‘were of our own making, and we shall be our own end.’

Exploring the theme of greed, there is a lovely exchange between Te Rau Tauwhare and one of the gold diggers who believes gold and the Maori’s greenstone could be interchangeable: why do we seek gold and not greenstone, one mineral and not the other? No, replies Tauwhare, they are not the same. And we know this because Catton has established the special meaning of greenstone to the Maori people. (Catton also shows Tauwhare’s pain and bitterness when he thinks of the £300 his people were paid for all their land, and the theft it equates to given all the gold in its soil and rivers.)

There’s fun to be hand along the way. Take Mannering’s comment after Balfour’s tale of why the twelve men are gathered for their council comes to a conclusion 350 pages into the novel: ‘A little more than [Moody] bargained for, perhaps.’  How droll!

There are also some lovely touches that reinforce the structural theme. Balfour asks Tauwhare for the meaning of the word Hokitika in Maori. Tauwhare struggles to put it into words, but “at last [he] lifted his finger and described a circle in the air. … ‘Understand it like this,’ he said, regretting that he had to speak the words in English, and approximate the noun. ‘Around. And then back again, beginning.’” It is a beautiful underlining of the structure of the novel itself, which wanes like a moon until it is new again, reaching the start of the story at its end. Beautiful. And one of the main gold claims in the story is called the ‘Aurora’, which is a word for dawn.

The Luminaries is the sort of novel perhaps only David Mitchell would have attempted, and maybe not even him. There will be theses and PhDs written on it. At 832 pages it is the longest to win the Booker, but don’t be put off by the length. At the end, although I was completely satisfied, I hoping there might be more. All I can do now is sit back and admire the waxing of a major literary talent.

And as a fan of great book and cover design work, I dip me lid to the cover design, by Jenny Grigg, which is terrific. And kudos to Granta for publishing such an ambitious work.

Read it, and let me know what you think.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

2013

Granta

832 pages

ISBN: 9781847088765

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased, rather appropriately in this instance, from Megalong Books in Leura!)

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Can science-fiction be ‘literary’?  Many in the literary fiction community would say ‘no’.  These folk look down very long noses toward the genre of science fiction, so much so that whenever sci-fi novels do make onto, say, the Booker shortlist – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for instance – they are invariably reclassified as literary fiction.  The 2011 Booker Prize judges’ panel chair, Dame Stella Rimington, caused a stir when she said that the quality she was looking for when selecting the longlist was that the novels should be ‘readable’.  (At this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival she admitted she regretted the choice of word, saying she should have used the word ‘accessible’, though me thinks this new word is six-of-one territory frankly.)  Jeanette Winterson’s response to Rimington’s remarks in The Guardian left little room for doubt about her views.  She has a simple test for literature: “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?”  If we apply Winterson’s test, where does the protean China Miéville fit given his pure sci-fi novel Embassytown?

The protagonist of Embassytown is Avice Benner Cho.  She lives on Arieka, an alien world whose native species are the enigmatic Ariekei, known ‘Hosts’.  The town she lives in is known as Embassytown.  Arieka is so far distant from anywhere else it is on the edge of the universe.  To get there, transport ships known as ‘miabs’ travel through ‘immer’, a kind of sub-space medium which makes most people sick.  But not ‘immersers’ like Avice.  The ships arrive sparingly.  For most of the time the society is cut-off, alone.  The Hosts are strange creatures who communicate using ‘Language’, speaking to each other using two-voices spoken at the same time.  They cannot hear humans.  They can only hear Language.   They also cannot lie.  But they do try.  They run a ‘Festival of Lies’ in which a few of the more adventurous step forth and attempt to say something untrue.  Over time, some get quite good at it.  One of them eventually succeeds.  The crowd is giddy with deceit.  There is a sadness about this lie just as there is excitement.  Can the lie lead to anything good, or is it just the first step toward a oblivion we sense coming?

The Hosts occasionally ask humans to perform odd tasks so that they can be used as similes.  Avice was asked to do something as a girl and has been known as a renowned simile amongst the Hosts ever since.  So how do humans communicate with the Hosts?  They do so through a small band of unique, specially-bred human pairs known as Ambassadors, who are so in-tune with each other they can speak at the same time.  But when a new pair of Ambassadors arrive who are very different from all the others, something goes horribly wrong when they first speak to the Hosts.  The world is thrown upside down.  Avice needs to find a way to communicate with the Arekei to stop certain oblivion.

So far, so sci-fi.  But is this any different to, let’s say, Kate Grenville’s lovely novel The Lieutenant (see my review), in which an indigenous people have to deal with newcomers who threaten everything?  Are the divides of communication that exist any different?  No, they’re not.

One of the joys of the novel is Miéville’s world-building.  There are so many made-up things – and the words used to name them – that it’s sometimes hard to grasp what he’s talking about.  Many are obvious in context.  Others take time to decode.  Some remain, even now, indefinable.  He challenges the reader to immerse themselves in his world just as Avice immerses when she travels away from it.  There is bio-rigging and alt-animals and floaking and so many others mysterious things.

Embassytown is about language, about communication.  Language is the bridge that spans an impossible divide.  There are large themes being played out here.  Can the truth, for instance, be best said with lies?  If so, what does that mean?  Okay, so there are the usual thriller tropes.  But there is also emotion, also dedep thought.

When asked about the rift between sci-fi and literary fiction Miéville replied that the ‘real schism lies between the literature of recognition versus that of estrangement.’  He went onto say, “I think there is something more powerful, ambitious, intriguing and radical about the road … less feted. I’d rather be estranged than recognise[d].”  There is an irony here, of course.  Miéville is one of the most feted authors going.  He’s won the Arthur C Clarke Award three times, the British Fantasy Award twice, and in 2010 won the Hugo, World Fantasy and BSFA Awards.  He’s even seen as the father of the speculative-fiction genre known as ‘the new weird’.  But there’s still the sense that the literary establishment ignores him.  (The double irony is that Embassytown – his most ‘literary’ book didn’t win any of the major awards.)  Perhaps it’s as sci-fi doyen Ursula Le Guin says: “When he wins the Booker, the whole silly hierarchy will collapse, and literature will be much the better for it.”

The answer to my question is of course sci-fi can be literary.  There are many examples in addition to the ones mentioned above.  You can add Embassytown to the list.  I dare say even Winterson would approve.

Embassytown by China Miéville

2011

Macmillan

405 pages

ISBN: 9780230754317

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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Bring up the Bodies plunges us once again into the absorbing life and times of Thomas Cromwell, here in the year 1535-6, as he seeks to oust Anne Boleyn and replace her with Henry VIII’s next squeeze, Jane Seymour.  For the most part the sequel is every bit as dazzling as the Booker-winning Wolf Hall.  The characterisation is incredible, the description of setting vivid.  The dialogue exhibits the same delicious humour of its predecessor.  The pacing is perfect.  You really feel as if you’re in the cut and thrust of Tudor England.

Commencing where Wolf Hall left off, Henry and his court are enjoying summer at Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family.  Timid and plain Jane is known to Henry already, but it is here that he sees her in a new light.  Cromwell begins to manoeuvre things to suit the whims of the monarch.

Times are tense.  Henry needs a male heir.  His bastard son, Harry Duke of Richmond, is no good.  The old families are plotting.  Cromwell is busy organising Henry’s affairs as well as those of his own.  He is a great moderniser, something that Mantel discussed in her recent Sydney Writers’ Festival appearance (see my muse on the session here).  He brings a bill to Parliament “to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbours, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist.”  To do this he suggests levying an income tax on the rich.  Henry himself goes to Parliament to argue for the bill but it is defeated.

In contrast, modernising the old monasteries might be what businessmen refer to as ‘low hanging fruit’.  He thinks:

… if the king had the monks’ land, not just a little but the whole of it, he would be three times the man he is now.  … His son Gregory says to him, ‘Sir, they say that if the Abbot of Glastonbury went to bed with the Abbess of Shaftesbury, their offspring would be the richest landowner in England.’ 

‘Very likely,’ he says, ‘though have you seen the Abbess of Shaftesbury?’ 

How droll!

Anne is pregnant and hoping to bear a boy that would secure her position.  While pregnant she is not to be touched by Henry.  So he asks Jane Seymour to be his “good mistress”. … Cromwell thinks:

There is a difference between a mistress and a good mistress: does Jane know that?  The first implies concubinage.  The second, something less immediate: an exchange of tokens, a chaste and languorous admiration, a prolonged courtship … though it can’t be very prolonged, of course, or Anne will have given birth and Jane will have missed her chance.

It’s Jane Rochford, George Boleyn’s suffering wife, who brings Cromwell news he can use against Anne: love letters are being sent to her from the hand of Harry Norris.  Cromwell sees an opportunity to right an old wrong.  In Wolf Hall, four courtiers ridiculed his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, in a play.  Cromwell is single-minded in his pursuit of them.  Conversely, he protects his friends, like Thomas Wyatt, who is also suspected of being a lover of Anne.

Poor Anne, she really doesn’t see the trouble she’s in, even when she knows Cromwell is talking to the Seymours.  She advises him:

‘Make terms with me before my child is born.  Even if it is a girl I will have another.  Henry will never abandon me.  … Since my coronation there is a new England.  It cannot subsist without me.’ 

Not so, madam, he thinks. If need be, I can separate you from history.

The machinations are a joy to behold.  No wonder Mantel, when asked at SWF, admitted that she likes Thomas Cromwell ‘very much’.  He had an ability to get himself out of situations that was incredible, she said.

Maybe, but Henry falls from his horse in a jousting competition and is knocked unconscious.  For two hours he is prone.  Everyone believes him dead.  Cromwell is summoned.  Arguments begin over the future of the monarchy, of the country itself.  History teeters on a knife-edge, so too Cromwell’s future.  This is one of those moments where the use of present tense works a treat.  We see the calculations as they occur; we hear the arguments; we witness Cromwell’s inner deliberations and upset that he didn’t prepare for this.  Take Henry away and he is finished.  The Duke of Norfolk snarls at him, telling him: “By God, I’ve got you now… By God, before the day is over your head will be spiked.”  Henry recovers.  Cromwell breathes again.

There are some sublime passages that follow this event.  When Cromwell’s chief clerk Rafe Sadler, who was brought up like a son, is promoted into the king’s privy chamber, there’s one on the art of being a high courtier, at the end of which, Cromwell thinks:

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him.  But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion.  You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

There’s another passage on a dream he has at which he sits down to a feast with all the old families at which the “Boleyns are laid at his hand to be carved”.

There are wonderful exchanges with the Emperor’s ambassador, Eustache Chapuys.  In one of these Cromwell foresees his end when Chapuys says to him: ‘You fear that [Henry] will turn on you.’  Cromwell replies: ‘He will, I suppose.  One day.’

And how’s this for delicious dialogue when Edward Seymour seeks an interview with Cromwell.  Anne has miscarried, opening the door for Jane Seymour.  Cromwell tells him about the plan to seek an annulment, though he doesn’t know on what grounds yet.  Edward says:

‘The Boleyns if they go down will take us with them.  I have heard of serpents that, though they are dying, exude poison through their skins.’

‘Did you ever pick up a snake?’ he asks.  ‘I did once, in Italy.’  He holds out his palms.  ‘I am unmarked.’

It’s beautiful characterisation, perfect for the slippery Cromwell.  Slippery and ruthless.  When, as part of his orchestration of Anne’s downfall, he exacts his revenge on the four courtiers, plus another man who wrote a ballad of their exploits, he tells Rafe:

Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect.  Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle.  Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.

True to form, Cromwell brings down Anne and her accused lovers with merciless efficiency.  Those claws of Henry’s could be his own.

For all its brilliance, there are a couple of off-key moments.  The first ten pages are ‘bumpy’.  The narrative voice struggles for traction.  Part of the reason is that we have a bit of re-hashing of who Thomas Cromwell is.  Another part of the reason lies, I think, in the use of the pronoun ‘we’.  It serves to distance the reader when it is trying to give us a role in the proceedings, undermining the closeness of Cromwell’s point of view that is one of the mainstays of both books.  I’d love to hear if anyone else experiences the same reaction.  I know one reader who did.

The second issue is ‘future-hopping’ in present tense.  In her SWF session Mantel commented that she saw the opening scene of Wolf Hall ‘cinematically’, so it seemed natural to use present tense.  It allowed her, she said, to show momentous instants in history as they were happening, to highlight how things might have gone one way or another, how things might have been different.  For me, this aspect of both novels is a huge success.  But: can you ‘jump’ into the future if everything is happening in the present?  Surely it’s a logical impossibility.  For example, there’s this bit of foreshadowing: “The young man gives him a glassy look.  It will be some years before he understands why.”  Some years?  How can he know this?  This is the author ‘speaking’.  If it were past tense, okay.  But in present tense it seems illogical.  Or is it just me?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

One other thing is the narrative gymnastics Mantel has been forced to engage in after some readers found the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall to be confusing.  The result is things like this:

‘And what did the lady say?’ he asks; he, Cromwell. 

Fortunately this is as bad as it gets, but it’s clumsy, which is a shame as the approach in Wolf Hall worked well.  Mantel discussed this issue in her SWF interview as well, explaining how difficult a thing it is to balance the desires of different sets of readers.  I don’t envy her.

The story is too engrossing to care about small ripples like these.  Bring up the Bodies is every bit as entertaining and wonderfully imagined as Wolf Hall.  It’s tighter and in some  ways and more riveting.  The risk inherent in everything Cromwell does pulsates on the page.  A joy.

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

2012

Fouth Estate

407 pages

ISBN: 9780007353583

Source: the local municipal library

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I had planned to wait a while before reading The Sense of an Ending, but Stella Rimington’s appearance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a discussion entitled ‘But is it a Good Read?’ (see my muse on that session) prompted me to see if it was indeed just that.  Rimington, ex-head of MI5 and now a thriller author in her own right, was chair of the Booker panel of judges in 2011, the year Sense won.  She caused a stir with her comments that the shortlist should focus on books that rated well for their ‘readability’.  Well, didn’t that send the so-called ‘literati’ into a tizz!  Commentators suggested this represented an assault on the Booker Prize, or even on literature itself; Jeanette Winterson wrote a particularly scathing piece in The Guardian.  At the time I was a bit concerned myself.  Rimington suggested in the SWF session that she had chosen the wrong word, that ‘accessible’ was perhaps better.  If it is, it’s only slightly better.  If we chose the Miles Franklin Award based on accessible, then books like Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance – both important books – would not have won.  Maybe Rimington et al herded themselves into a corner with their shortlist, making the winner a somewhat obvious choice, but whatever their faults, The Sense of an Ending is a fine novella – readable and accessible, yes, but also ‘literary’.  It might not wow Winterson, who admires literature that challenges and extends her ‘capacity to think and feel’, but it probably wouldn’t have have upset  her terribly, either.

When Tony Webster introduces himself as our first person narrator, he lists six things he remembers, then informs us: “… what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”  We know we have an unreliable narrator.  The six things are all in a sense liquid, be it a sweaty wrist, steam rising from a wet sink, a river, “bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door”, and so on.  These images are a conscious choice by Barnes, used to reflect the fluid nature that his memories now possess as he looks back on his life in old age.  They also hold other clues, a sense of wonder at a river that runs uphill, a sense of change in the steam, a sense of foreboding in what lies behind the locked door.  So we have details that work twice as hard, serving to reflect the thematic tilt of the story to come as well as set up that story.

Tony is thinking back to his youth.  At boarding school, his circle of three friends becomes four when the strikingly original thinker, Adrian, joins the class.  There are some interesting events in this section, such as the discussion in history class about what history is and how it relies on interpretation.  Adrian stuns Tony and the rest of the class, including their teacher, with his assessment, which he ends thus:

That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir?  The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.

Adrian is not just instructing his classmates and teacher, he’s instructing the reader as well.  We’re forced to wonder, what is this history that we are going to read?  How subjective will it be?  And who is responsible for it?

Other questions are raised in this section as well, such as the boys’ thoughts on the suicide of a fellow classmate, an act they concluded was “unphilosophical, self-indulgent, and inartistic: in other words, wrong.”

Adrian raises the suicide in class, much to the horror of his classmates.  He concludes that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

After school, the boys go their separate ways.  Shy Tony says that he has an instinct for self-preservation.  He is atrocious with girls, so it is some surprise to him when he finds himself in a relationship with Veronica.  They aren’t right for each other but Tony is so woefully pathetic he can’t see or do anything about it.  He just goes with the flow of things.  One day the boys re-unite and Tony takes Veronica.  She is charmed by Adrian.  Sometime after Tony and Veronica’s relationship crumbles, she and Adrian get together and write Tony a letter announcing said fact.  Tony first writes a postcard saying all is fine; then he writes a letter.  This letter is just the sort of documentation discussed in their history class.  Tony recalls his version of it – his no-doubt ‘imperfect memory’ of it.  We wonder what the real version was.

Now an old man, he receives a letter from a lawyer announcing that Veronica’s mother has left him five hundred pounds in her will as well as Adrian’s diary.  Only Veronica won’t hand the diary over.  It’s all very strange.  Why did she leave the money to Tony?  Why did she have Adrian’s diary?  Tony wants the diary because it is a form of documentation, something that might illuminate his memory of events that happened so long ago.  Suddenly we find ourselves dealing not with the boring, straight-laced man we thought we were, but someone infinitely more complex.

There are countless wonderful set-ups and pay-offs throughout.  As could be expected in a book of just 150 pages, every detail works hard to earn its place, even the particular flat-handed, horizontal wave that Tony receives from Veronica’s mother as he departs after a weekend is placed very specifically.

There are moments of delicious humour too.  When Tony visits Veronica’s parents’ house for the weekend, he takes the only suitcase he owns.  It’s huge, and he wonders whether they will think he has come to burglarise their home.  We’ve all been through those moments were we ‘meet the parents’ and stay over for a night or two.  It’s never-wracking and strange and Tony is in a dither about everything that happens, about comments made by her brother, about winks shared between family members, about why Veronica doesn’t kiss him goodnight, and about the mysterious breakfast he shares with Veronica’s mother.  And when their relationship ends, he takes a milk jug she’d given him to Oxfam in the hope she would walk past the shop and see it, but when he arrives he finds something she had given him in the window already!

Barnes captures the nuances of ageing with quiet sensitivity.  There’s an intimacy with it that is powerfully affecting.  Tony slowly pieces together the secrets.  Light is shed on those fluid memories we met at the open.  Life is made of moments, moments in which decisions are made that alter not just our own life, but the lives of those close to us as well.  This is something that Mantel made note of at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on Sunday, something she wants to capture, those moments in which history could have gone one of many different ways; she does so through a cinematic-like present tense; Barnes does so through the fog of fluid memory.  For Tony, the repercussions of his actions have rippled out in devastating waves of unexpected consequence, forcing him to reconsider everything.

Perfectly formed, weighted, and considered.  That is Julian Barnes’ masterful The Sense of an Ending.  It is a damn good read.

Sue, over at Whispering Gums liked it a lot, too.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

2011

Jonathan Cape

150 pages

ISBN: 9780224094153

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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