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The circus arrives without warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The night circus by Erin Morgenstern

2011

Vintage

490 pages

ISBN: 9780099554790

Source: the local municipal library

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Grieving for the baby stillborn to them in Pennsylvania, Jack and Mabel move to Alaska for a quieter existence on their new  farm.  Set in the 1920s, the cold, unforgiving landscape is real frontier stuff.  They share an awkward love, and their grief is slowly strangling them.  They also face the harsh truth that, in middle age and with no offspring to help them, and with their farm failing, they might have to leave.  They might not have enough food for the winter.  The story is told, at least initially, in alternating POV between Jack and Mabel.  Mabel sees Jack return from an unsuccessful hunt, thus [p42]:

… Jack walked out of the barn carrying a lantern and the snow eddied around him in the circle of light.   He turned his head, as if he had sensed her eyes on him, and the two of them looked at each other across the distance, each in their pocket of light, snow failing like a veil between them.  Mabel couldn’t remember the last time they had so deliberately gazed at each other, and the moment was like the snow, slow and drifting.

However, as that first snow of their second full winter settles in the yard about their log cabin, they find a moment of levity and decide to build a snowman, although, once dressed in mittens and scarf, the creation is more child than man.  Jack carves a little face and they have made themselves a snow girl.  Awakening from his sleep that night Jack sees what he thinks is a girl in the woods but, thinking he’s seeing things, he goes back to bed.  The next morning they wake to find the snow girl gone, including all her clothes.  Little footprints lead away from the place she stood, but none lead to it.  Thus begins the mystery of the snow girl, coming and going as she pleases with her red fox companion.  She favours the cold outside air rather than the warm cabin.  The girl leads Jack to the moose that will feed him and Mabel for the winter.  She is the child they always wanted.  But is she real or a dream, some form of “cabin fever” that is known to grip the minds of those souls waiting out the long, dark winters?

Into the picture arrives the no-nonsense Esther Benson and her husband George, two established farmers and ‘neighbours’, though there’s a good distance between the respective farms.  They have three sons, including Garret, their youngest, who helps Jack and Mabel with the farming in the spring and summer, and goes out trapping in the winter.  Only Jack and Mabel see the girl though, who calls herself Faina, and who comes each winter and disappears each spring.  When Mabel tells Esther about her, Esther thinks her friend’s gone mad.  She says to Mabel: “You start seeing things that you’re afraid of … or things you’ve always wished for.”  Making matters worse, Jack won’t back Mabel up.  Despite this they ask Garret to promise not to kill any red foxes.  It’s only years later, after Jack and Mabel survive all manner of mishap and challenge with the help of Garret, that Garret sees Faina, now a young woman.  How will his interest in her alter the balance of things?  And what will she make of the fact that he had, in the end, killed her fox?

Faina is cautious when it comes to Garret.  She asks Jack about him.  Jack says: [p310]:

You don’t have to be frightened of him.  He doesn’t mean you any harm. 

All right, she said. 

She set the fish in the snow and washed the blood from her hands.

There’s an ominous portent in this exchange, those words ‘harm’ and ‘blood’ shot through with meaning even as he tried to calm her fears.  Adding another level of intrigue is Mabel’s memory of how she used to conure fairies in her garden as a girl, and, more troublingly, the fairy tale her father used to tell her, about a girl made from snow who is born to a childless couple in exactly the same way as Faina seems to have been born to them — a story that doesn’t end well.

I love stories merging the magical and real.  And I’ve been reading so many classics and historical fiction of late that it was a joy to get back to some magical realism.  Based on an old fairy tale by Arthur Ransome, called Little Daughter of the Snow, which is re-printed at the end of the book, The Snow Child is pure storytelling.  Ivey lives in Alaska and it shows in every description of the hard winters and light-filled summers.  There is a simple lyricism in her prose, reminiscent of fairy tales, which is captivating.  There is a real honesty in the way events are depicted, including the killing and gutting of wild animals, the risky venturing into wilderness, the hardships of the farm.

There are some curious things, though.  First is the introduction of a Garret as a third point-of-view (POV) around two-thirds of the way through the novel.  This would ordinarily be a no-no but it because of where the plot is heading there seems little choice to include him.  Just as curious is the way his POV leaves the story as we return to just Jack and Mabel’s POV toward the end.

There is so much good story pulling us along that I barely noticed the slight lack of depth to the thematic treatment of grief, the longing for family, and how much love is enough.  The ending is perhaps ever so slightly less controlled than the rest of the novel in this regard.  Maybe that’s why The Snow Child didn’t make the 2012 Orange Prize longlist, though I, like The Guardian’s Robert McCrum, in his commentary on the strength of the Orange longlist, would have liked to see Ivey get a nod.  (McCrum adds Kate Grenville latest, Sarah Thornhill to the list of overlooked novels.)  All in all, the quibbles are minor, especially for such a sparkling debut.

I enjoyed The Snow Child a lot.  I wonder whether Eowyn Ivey will take us back into the wilds of Alaska in her next novel…

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Headline Review

2012

ISBN: 9780755380527

404 pages, & Arthur Ransome’s Fairy Tale, Little Daughter of the Snow, 11 pages.

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

So opens the masterful Love in the Time of Cholera.  Dr Juvenal Urbino has been called to the suicide of a man he played chess with.  It is an interesting structural choice made by Marquez, to start the novel with someone other than the two main protagonists, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, whose relationship is the core of the story.  And yet there is much to be gleaned from that one sentence.  For, as it turns out, when we go back fifty years to find Florentino and Fermina’s youthful love, their few face-to-face meetings are held beneath almond blossoms… [p64]:

Years later, when [Florentino] tried to remember what the maiden idealized by the alchemy of poetry really was like, he could not distinguish her from the heart-rending twilights of those times.  Even when he observed her, unseen, during those days of longing when he waited for a reply to his first letter, he saw her transfigured in the afternoon shimmer oftwo o’clockin a shower of blossoms from the almond trees where it was always April regardless of the season of the year.

The above passage tells you all you need to know about Marquez’s lyricism.  There is a sense of the magical everywhere, from winds so strong they carry away small children, to dolls at the ends of beds that seem to grow as a child would.

Unfortunately for Florentino, those almond blossoms are indeed the very factory of unrequited love, for Fermina rejects his amorous advances and settles instead for Dr Urbino.  Not to be deterred, Florentino decides to ‘wait’ for Fermina, to prove his love was real.  Of course, his ‘wait’ is quite idiosyncratic – he proceeds to engage in love affairs with some 622 woman over many years, some more involved than others.  It is during these long decades that we see a different side of Florentino’s obsessive love, for some of his (many) trysts have perverse and tragic outcomes: there are women who love him but know that he is unobtainable, there is one who is killed by her husband after he finds out the truth of her affair, and there is the fourteen year old girl, America, who is placed in his care as his ward, and whom he seduces into a relationship which ends with predictably harrowing results.  There is also the realisation that the Riverboat Company that he has run for most of his adult years has destroyed the luxuriant rainforest along the river.  And yet, despite these very human frailties and the collateral damage they cause, we want Florentino to win, to get his girl.

Meanwhile, life has dealt Fermina some of her own lessons.  She realises, only after Juvenal’s death, that he conducted an affair during their marriage, and was not really the man he seemed at first to be.

So we see love in all its guises and disguises.  We see, also, one of the great ideas of the novel: the celebration of ageing and how love can conquer time.

Of course, the other side of the word ‘cholera’ is ‘choler’, being “anger; irritability”.  So while we have the over-arching love theme set against the backdrop of the cholera epidemics that sweep through the townships along the Magdalena River, we also have a darker side, expressed in the never-ending civil war, and there are times when victims of one are confused with victims of the other.  It is one of Dr Urbino’s goals to improve the sanitation of the city and townships and rid the country of the recurrent epidemics.

Few other authors can match Marquez for the evocative depiction of setting, in this case a tropical city on theMagdalenaRiverinColumbia.

Take for instance this example, [p17]:

In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air.

And this… [p120]:

There was a full moon.  The patio, idealized by anisette, floated at the bottom of an aquarium, and the cages covered with cloths looked like ghosts sleeping under the hot scent of new orange blossoms.

The difficulty is in not quoting more, for there is something on every page that I’ve found myself underlining and pondering.

Love in the Time of Cholera is right up there with One Hundred Years of Solitude.  There is so much to like about it, from the deliciously magical images, to the mirth, the darkness, the poetic themes, the many faces of love, and the sublime ending.  I’m an idealist, so the notion that love can win over time is for me a comforting thought.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

(translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman)

Penguin

1985

ISBN: 9780140123890

348 pages

Source: personal library, (aka ‘the bookshelf rainbow’)

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The yellow portion of my bookshelf rainbow needed a little boost so I was very happy to receive Téa Obreht’s much hyped The Tiger’s Wife in the mail.  It is a wonderfully produced hardback.  The cover is really well done.  Full marks.  It’s very different to the US version which is quite dark and stolid (see right), although I do like the tiger creeping across the top.  The differences between the two couldn’t be more pronounced.  But I’m not here to judge a book by its cover so it’s on with my musings…

Regular readers will know that I’m a bit partial to magic realism and fable, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie, Saramago, Grass, Murakami, early Peter Carey, and so-on.  Looking at this list makes it seem like I’m a little stuck in the ‘80s and perhaps need to modernise my exposure to more recent speculative fiction from the likes of Neil Gaiman et al, a list to which Obreht can be added.

I picked up The Tiger’s Wife not knowing much about the story, only that it had some magical realist elements.  The reason I came to it was that Obreht is coming out for the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few weeks.  The only other thing I knew was that Obreht had made it onto the New Yorker’s list of “20 under 40 Fiction” issue, and therefore comes with a lot of hype.   Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia and was raised in Belgrade.  Her family moved to Cypress in 1992, then Egypt, and then finally to the US in 1997.  The Tiger’s Wife deals with the troubled history of her birthplace, and is thus an ambitious book.

I was immediately captivated by prose peppered with vivid details reaching out from the first line, [p1]:

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.  He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress.  It is autumn, and I am four years old.  The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park.  Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. …

All our senses are engaged, including the one that matters: our sense of wonder at the ritual and the importance of The Jungle Book to her grandfather – something that he carries with him everywhere he goes.

In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Obreht was asked: “What, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?”  Her answer was: “When something inexplicable happens in the transfer from writer to reader, and the piece, despite its imperfections, rattles and moves the reader. The best fiction stays with you and changes you.”

Well, this sense of magic that lifts off the page is very much evident in her writing.  The animals in the zoo are a pointer to the vivid descriptions which are a hallmark of the rest of the book.  A panther, [p3], has “ghost spots paling his oil-slick coat”; and the tigers are “awake and livid, bright with rancour.  Stripe-lashed shoulders rolling, they flank one another up and down the narrow causeway of rock, and the smell of them is sour and warm and fills everything.”

Set in an unnamed Balkans country split by the ravages of war, the story itself is divided into two strands: the one in which the now adult Natalia, our grand-daughter narrator, pieces together the last days of her grandfather’s life, and the one in which she recounts the memories of the stories of her grandfather’s life in the mountain village of Galina where he grew up.  The two strands wind tighter until they intersect.

Both the grandfather and Natalia are doctors.  This is an important distinction – for in times of war these doctors stand outside the conflict and deal with casualties on both sides.  And the Balkans conflicts form a backdrop to these stories, stories rife with superstition and characters who are persecuted for being outsiders.

Natalia’s father tells her stories about ‘the deathless man’, a man who cannot die, who he meets gathering the souls of people about to die for his uncle, Death.  The grandfather’s life is bound up in the two stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife.  These are the more ‘magical realist’ stories and characters.  And then there are events which are realist but no less magical, such as the night, in the middle of the war, when the grandfather wakes Natalia, then a youth, and takes her out into the middle of the darkened city where they see an elephant walking up the main drag to the zoo that they can no longer go to because of the war.   Apart from the elephant’s handler, they are the only witnesses to the miracle of the elephant being delivered to the zoo.  Her grandfather tells her then that this was a story just for them, that it was not to be shared.  He says, [p54]:

We’re in a war … the story of war – dates, names, who started it, why – that belongs to everyone.  Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before.  But something like this – this is yours.  It belongs only to you.  And Me.  Only to us.

There is a strong sense that war is a thing that devours us all, something that comes back to haunt the story later, when the city zoo’s tiger begins to eat itself, starting with its legs.  The city’s inhabitants gather at the zoo dressed up as the animals, protesting the bombing.  Despite the futility, and the tiger eating itself, there is some hope: for the cubs of the tigress are saved from their mother – who threatens, it seems, to want to eat them – and are raised elsewhere.  Whether intended or not, this renewal of life is a nice touch.

Fortunately, just as war devours us all, demeans us all, stories have the power of life.  Before the current war there was another and a tiger escaped from the zoo and made its way through the countryside until it found Galina.  It terrifies the townsfolk, but it enthrals the young grandfather.  It also captures the heart of an abused, deaf-mute woman, a Muslim and thus an outsider, who begins to leave meat for the tiger.  She becomes known as the tiger’s wife.  There are tales of a great bear hunter and we find out why this woman’s husband is the way he is and what happens when these characters intersect, for they are all after the tiger, all except the tiger’s wife and Natalia’s grandfather.  We find out too, how the grandfather got his copy of The Jungle Book, a gift from the apothecary, who has his own story that is told, a story with tragic consequences for the grandfather – the apothecary might have given him his beloved book, but he takes something away from the boy just as important.

The stories are rife with superstition.  There is the forty days of quiet mourning that a family undertakes after the death of a family member; the burying of hearts at crossroads; the power of apothecaries; the appearance of the Virgin Mary in water; and the necessity of ensuring that the dead are properly buried.  Natalia, for instance, is busy going across the new border and giving medicine to a local orphanage.  Staying with a local family who own a vineyard, she sees an extended family digging in the vineyard, almost all day and night, searching for one of their cousins who was killed in the war and buried there hastily.  Sickness now stalks their family and they believe it is the soul of the dead man crying out for a proper burial.  Again, the war is never too far from the surface.  (Landmines still riddle the fields and mountains.)  It is here, too, that Natalia tries to track down the man who captivated her grandfather so much: the deathless man.

There are a couple of things which don’t quite work.  There is a strange pulling between some of the old stories, a sense that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.  The characters have these wild back-stories which seem to want to stand for the story itself.  For me the emotional depth comes from some of the stories of the war – how Natalia and her fellow medical students source their cadavers.  Her grandfather’s stories are filled with creative imagery, but they don’t quite carry the same emotional punch.  We spend a lot of time with, for instance, the deaf-mute’s failed musician husband as a boy.  The title is a pointer to this sense too: it was originally the title of a short story, but this novel is no more about the tiger’s wife than it is about Natalia’s grandfather, the deathless man, or Natalia herself. (It is, however, a great title.)  But it is with the grandfather talking to Natalia that we feel the impact of all the war when he says [p282-3]: “In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground.”

Does it live up to the hype?  Yes and no.  The Tiger’s Wife is not perfect.  It is though, a very fine debut.  The quality of the writing, the vivid details, the great story-telling, the way the past informs the present, the way, too, Obreht casts the devastation and mindlessness of war and persecution, mark her out, not so much as an author to watch, but as someone who we can already enjoy in her sparkling The Tiger’s Wife.  The judges of the Orange Prize agree: The Tiger’s Wife has been shortlisted for the 2011 Orange.

I’m looking forward to seeing Téa Obreht at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.  And I can’t wait for her next book.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Orbreht

Orion Books

2011

ISBN: 9780297859017

336 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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What is the price of progress?

It seems the better the book, the slower I read!  This is counterintuitive perhaps, but I like to slow down and really—for want of a better description—gorge on beautiful writing.  I finished Just Relations a few days back but have been so flat out with other things (and other books!) I haven’t had time to write a review.

Just Relations is in many ways a product of its time.  Published in 1982, and winner of the Miles Franklin that year, it is a longish book.  In this regard it reminds me of books published around that time such as Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, and Illywhacker by Peter Carey (a little later, 1985)—and I mean this in terms of length as well as style and quality.  Great books transcend the time they are written in and are always worth going back to.

(Of course in ‘those’ days, there was no internet!  What did people do with their spare time?  They read, (or went to primary school in my case!).  Today, we are in a very interesting time in publishing with everyone’s short attention spans and the rise of e-books.  Perhaps one of the most interesting questions is what it all means for the length of the book.  I’ve heard it said many a time that publishers will not consider publishing manuscripts over 120,000 words, unless the author is established.  But are books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel reversing this trend, or is this a mere speed-bump on the road to shorter and shorter novels?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.  I could also pass comment about the changes in literary awards here, particularly with regard to books that win the Miles Franklin, but I shall desist!)

For lovers of quirky Australian tales with elements of magic realism that are beautifully written, Just Relations will not disappoint.  The by-line of the book is “A tiny, remote Australian community unites to thwart progress.”  It is a good summary of the town of Whitey’s Fall which is built up a strange mountain of gold that looms over the town and its old folk who gather silently in the Mountain Hotel, (the pub), to muse over their ‘religion’ of ‘Remembering’.

The opening scene will tell you much about the flavour of the story.  Into the town arrives Vivien Lang, a young English woman who enters the general store run by the ancient Mrs Brinsmead and presents her with a letter of introduction.  Felicity Brinsmead is old, like most Whitey Fallers and carries with her grotesque sack of hair and a terrible secret.  Vivien is a relation of one of the townsfolk (now living in England), and she is here to claim her relative’s property.  Mrs Brinsmead is excited by the arrival of so young a person in so old a town, and promises herself to introduce the woman to ‘Remembering’.  In the meantime the shopkeeper is having a conversation with the shop itself, who is a very miserable indeed(!)

After Viven’s exit, Billy Swan walks into the shop and asks for half a dozen sticks of gelignite.  This raises a few eyebrows.  The town was built years ago on the gold found in the mountain, and here is someone asking for explosives.  Has he found more gold?  Or has he found the gold but wants to not extract it but to blow it apart so that the town can remain the quiet backwater it is and not be over-run by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the back of the next gold-rush?  Mrs Brinsmead can’t find either gelignite or dynamite.  (It turns out that the ‘Fido’ she constantly calls out to is not the invisible dog that everyone thinks she is (madly) calling after, but her son, who she and her brother keep imprisoned in their house—not wanting to let him be known to the other townsfolk for he represents undeniable progress.  It’s Fido who has hoarded all the explosives.  But for what purpose?)

Billy leaves empty-handed and angry.  He soon meets Vivien and a relationship blossoms between them after they witness the death in a car crash of Mrs Ping who drives off the Mountain road.  And this is just the first one hundred pages or so!

It is impossible to summarise the cast of odd characters that Hall has assembled here.  They are as strange and quirky as the town.  The story is full of comedy, farce, tragedy, and wonderfully unbridled imagination.  There are many harrowing events; it seems Hall has a penchant for the grotesque things that people inflict upon themselves—or situations they wander into without warning.  Mrs Ping’s death is one example.  As is her husband “The Narcissist’s” razor-blade self-harm.

The town has steadfastly ignored the claims—and letters—of the outside world.  Things come to a head when Progress—represented by the new highway being built right through the town—threatens their very way of life.  (This made me think of a question asked of Peter Carey in London at a reading I attended when he was promoting True History of the Kelly Gang.  When asked whether he thought it terrible that the new freeway that skirted Glenrowan meant that people passed by without knowing the town and its history, he replied that ‘no, the people who want to know will take the turn-off’.  This is not quite what the townsfolk of Whitey’s Fall face, indeed quite the opposite, but they are both facets of the same ‘Progress’.)

What with the approach of the highway, what will the explosives in Whitey’s Fall be used for now?  The highway roadworks uncover the gold, but only the townsolf notice.  There is a lot of humour throughout the novel.  In this section we see Senator Halloran attempt to rally support for the road.  He says of the development that is cutting up the land: “Ecology is a web.  This road will make you part of it.”  How very droll!

No wonder Just Relations won the Miles Franklin Award, an award Hall has won twice, and been short-listed a further four times.  That’s a total of six short-listed novels out of the eleven he has written.  (He has also written numerous poetry volumes, non-fiction, and edited several poetry anthologies.)

Strangely, I haven’t read a lot of Hall’s work.  I heard him talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2010) where he read from his just published memoir, Popeye Never Told You.  In that reading he described a German bombing raid in WWII.  The prose was sparse, haunting—and perfect for the subject.

In Just Relations, the prose is both lustrous and weighty, a combination that may seem impossible, but Hall achieves it.  I wonder how much the likes of Winton with all his ‘muscularity’ learnt from him?  Whatever the answer, he is, on the face of this book alone, a worthy teacher.

It might not reach the great heights of the works by Rushdie and Carey noted above, and here and there is perhaps a little indulgent—reflective of the time perhaps.  But its imagination is no less exciting.  It exhibits an intriguing range of narrative styles and voices.  It turns out the price of progress can be quite high, yet it also brings love and the promise of a new generation.

Just Relations kept me company for a while, and what good company it was!

Just Relations by Rodney Hall

Penguin

ISBN: 0 14 00.6974 7          [clearly an old ISBN format!]

502 pages

Source: The Local Municipal Library

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The two-page preface to The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) outlines José Saramago’s contention that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping” – something that is quite topical with novels such as Wolf Hall spurring a recent swathe of historical fiction. But this is not a historical novel like Mantel’s Booker Prize winner, but rather a story ‘inserted into history.’  Its fictional siblings therefore include speculative ‘alternate histories’, such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004).  However, Roth takes a point in US history, (where he has FDR defeated by Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 Presidential election), and goes off on a tangent, writing a totally new history, whereas Saramago alters how a particular historical event occurs and who is involved, but there is no splintering off into some altered path of history which leads to an altered present.

The novel is constructed with two story arcs, one of which is historical, and the other in the present.  There are the events set in the twelfth century including our protagonist Raimundo Silva’s alternate history of the siege of Lisbon, and there is the life of Raimundo in the twentieth century.  It raises questions over how accurate the historical record can be and whether we can ever truly know the emotions or thoughts of characters whose history we interpret many years later.  How accurate can we be about History?

Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998.  This is the third book of his I’ve read.  The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and floats around the Atlantic(!), and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ are the other two I’ve read.  The later is also an alternative history in the same vein as the Siege of Lisbon.  Both are excellent reads and are highly recommended.

In much of Saramago’s work, characters regularly have trouble connecting with others, and his novels regularly feature the theme of urban dislocation.  They also regularly feature magic realist elements.  The theme of historical accuracy and the framework of magic realism – right up my street! – so I was looking forward to another fine read from the Nobel Prize winning author.

Reading Saramago has its challenges.  He only uses commas and periods.  There is no other punctuation.  So, no question marks, exclamation marks, or dialogue quotation marks.  Dialogue is subsumed within the prose, marked only by a commencing capital letter and conversations are strung along with commas being the only separator between characters’ words.  His view is that the prose itself should make it clear as to who is speaking and also whether there is a question or exclamation involved.  One thus has to concentrate to keep up with things.  Close reading is a must.

This means that we get great slabs of prose, made only larger by his penchant for interminably long sentences and paragraphs, full of what I would call ‘narrative deviations’ in which the narrator goes off on some tangent to explore an idea or make a witty aside.  For example: (p63):

a traditional Portuguese meal of fried fish and rice with tomato sauce and salad, and with any luck, the tender leaves of a lettuce heart, where, something not many people know, nestles the incomparable freshness of the morning, the dew and mist, which are one and the same, but warrant repetition for the simple pleasure of writing both words and savouring the sound.

… It’s lovely writing, with lovely images, but there’s just too much meandering.  It is in some way reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s excellent (and challenging) The Autumn of the Patriarch, (see my review), and provides a stark contrast to the pyrotechnics of a Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer for example.

Yet for all the promise of the story’s idea and the sometimes beautiful writing, for some reason only the modern arc of Raimundo’s life worked well for me.  Raimundo is a proof-reader and one day we see him insert a ‘not’ into a historical text entitled The History of the Siege of Lisbon – on purpose!  The deliberate mistake is only noticed after the book has been printed, but not before it is distributed.  The publisher’s decide to insert an errata notice rather than republish.  They also bring in a new woman, Maria Sara, to oversee all of the firm’s proof-readers’ work.  Needless to say, the meeting between Raimundo and his new boss is a tense affair!

After the meeting, Raimundo’s mind is filled with questions over the brusque nature of the woman.  Sometime later, he realises he has feelings for her.  Maria tells him that he should write the fictional history of the siege of Lisbon, one in which the crusaders decline to help the Portuguese evict the Moors from the fortified city.  After some silent rubbishing of this task, Raimundo finds himself drawn further and further into the lives of both Moor and Christian.  The fact that he himself lives in the fortified section of the city’s walls adds further intrigue – he can see battles and events from the distant past as if they are happening.  These historical scenes didn’t really capture my imagination.  Sometimes Saramago’s interminably long sentences with all their ‘nods’ and ‘winks’ and witty asides bored me.  It was all too ponderous.  So we have a wonderful premise for a story, but a structural problem with the dual arcs, one of which lacks bight.

It is only when the relationship between Raimundo and Maria Sara takes off that things move along nicely.  Here there are some wonderful moments, where an older single man falls in love with a woman fifteen-odd years his junior, who, we learn, liked him from their first meeting.

This is one of Saramago’s books that is one the 1,001, Must Read list.  I will certainly read other books by him, but just felt part of this novel didn’t work as well as it might have, which is a shame because the theme of the intersection between history and fiction is wonderful, one that is always worth exploring.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

The Harvill Press, London

ISBN: 9781860467226

312 pages

Source: Personal Bookshelf Rainbow

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Another damp day in Sydney saw the close of the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2010.  Peter Carey is giving the official closing address, which along with many of the sessions will be available from the SWF website.  It was another very interesting day.  This is a long post but I assume that readers can see which session interests them and read those summaries:

1. ‘Portraits of a Lady’ with Colm Toibin and Kirsten Tranter in conversation with the learned Geordie Williamson, in part discussing their work’s (Colm’s Brooklyn & Kirsten’s The Legacy) relationship with Henry James’ famous novel, although the discussion covered more than this, with Colm in particular showing his encyclopedic knowledge of James, his life, and his work.  Geordie opened the session with a quote of Virginia Woolf’s review of (I think) Henry James’ Letters; Colm told the story of how Virginia and her sister (and everyone else in London at the time) wanted to impersonate James.  James was a great friend of Virginia’s parents and was over for dinner one evening and was telling a story in his own unique way, rocking on his chair as he spoke, until he rocked a little too far and fell toppled over, but what amazed Virginia was that he kept talking through the entire descent! 

Geordie asked the authors how it was that they squared with themselves the task of taking on the ‘monolith’ of James.  Kirsten told the story of how The Portrait of a Lady itself was James’ response to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, so this gave her a sense of confidence that such a project was appropriate.  Cue Colm’s very witty reason: he used to work a summer job in the motor tax office, ‘sorting paper records covered in dust and grime and dirt’. Said Colm: ‘In the day, I worked in the tax office, and at night I read The Portrait of a Lady'(!)  He was astonished with the idea of a secret held to the end of a story, and was puzzled and intrigued by James, and what appears on the surface to be the ‘style of morality’ but is really ‘the morality of morality’.  Geordie then asked about the different structure that each author took in their novels, with Kirsten favouring a fairly direct use of James’ structure (with some ‘grafted-on’ mystery elements, as well as changing the scandal from infidelity to the artist’s authorship of her work).  Kirsten purposefully did not re-read Portrait before writing her work, though she did dip into it.  Colm stripped out a lot of the original structure.  He noted that a lot of James’ work is poor, some of short stories in particular (often written quickly for money), but also some of his longer works.  Colm said ‘James struggled to write about the English’, but he did have a gift in his great novels of using a very intimate third person narrative which allows the reader to ‘become the character’.  Colm said James did this very well and Portrait is a great example.  In Brooklyn, Toibin said he limits his protagonist Ellis Lacey’s ‘ambition’, but he allows her the ability to observe events and surroundings with ‘full intelligence’.  A question was asked as to whether Henry James would have written great works had he been openly gay; Colm replied that EM Forster wrote a story which was openly gay but it was very bad because everything was given to the reader, whereas in other works his use of metaphor works, and the same could be said of James.  Another observation of Colm was that James, whilst very wealthy, wrote poverty well.  Colm clearly has both the gift of the gab – and the intellect to back it up.  A very interesting session that covered so much more than the premise allowed.

2. ‘The Boat to Redemption’ – Su Tong in conversation with Linda Jaivin (who also translated).  Another great session.  Su Tong has a wonderfully sunny disposition which came across even through Linda’s interpretation.  Tong’s books have included Wives and Concubines – which was made into the acclaimed film, Raise the Red Lantern – and others, with his latest novel The Boat to Redemption winning the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, making a total of seven novels, and over 200 short stories.  The story is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su grew up.  He saw people with placards around their necks with their crimes inscribed thereon and wondered what their struggles and stories were.  There is violence in his novels, but he defends this by saying that ‘violence was a part of everyday life.’  Su said he is now very awake to the ‘nightmare and corruption of his childhood’ and all its ‘blackness’. 

Interestingly, Linda noted that the title of the novel in Chinese means ‘River, Shore’ – it is set on a river, its narrator a young boy whose father decided to move from the shore to the river and they haven’t set on land since.  Su Tong’s own parents once lived on an island on the mighty Yangtze River, so for him the river was his world.  Yet the feeling of a river lends itself more to poetry than novels, so writing a story about the river proved a great challenge even for someone with his background. 

Su said that he sees himself as a doctor that looks at the ills of humanity and figures out what needs to be done.  He says it is common in China for doctors to cut out diseased tissue and show this to their families; Tong says this is what he does with society, he cuts out the rotten tissue and shows it to us – a nice metaphor.  We then had quite a funny description of how young people learnt about sex in China, with Linda noting the theme of sexual anxiety that it present in a lot of Chinese literature, including Su Tong’s work.  Mothers commonly tell their children when they ask ‘where do babies come from?’ that they come from the mother’s armpit or they are found on the street.  Su Tong was told he was taken from a boat.  He and his friends found out about sex from The Barefoot Doctor, the book given to rural people who were given very basic medical training.  Says Tong: ‘We studied Mao in class, and The Barefoot Doctor at home. 

We then arrived at Linda’s observation about the English translation.  Linda read both the Chinese and English version simultaneously and was appalled at the differences between them.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version.  The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book the other night!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises on Thursday night in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session.  So whilst I have not read it yet and will provide a review soon, I’m aghast to think that there are people out there that wont read it because they feel it is a poor book, and I for one am looking forward to reading River, Shore

3. ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’ with Hugo Bowne-Anderson and Chris Andrews (translator of several of Bolano’s works into English), with chair Don Anderson.  Bolano has captured the imagination of many readers since his premature death with his mysterious and incredibly prolific writing.  Don noted in his introduction that Bolano said ‘magic realism stinks’, but he also said of Garcia Marquez, that some of his novels were ‘perfect’ – and this in a nutshell gives us a glimpse into the elusiveness of Bolano.  Hugo spoke at length about Bolano’s works, observing that either of By Night in Chile or Amulet (see my review), are good ways into his work. 

Chris then gave us a particularly well-constructed talk on what he saw as the five characteristics of Bolano: Energy; Tension; Totality; Ehtics; and, Poetry.  He quoted the opening lines of The Savage Detectives and noted its lack of adjectives as well as the immediate sense of a ‘vibration’ of energy.  Tension is ‘something that Bolano can create out of nothing’, and Chris noted that quite often his short stories, like Poe’s short stories, reveal a hidden structure at the end and what you thought you were reading turns out to be something entirely different.  Yet many of Bolano’s novels eschew endings.  Instead we have very open endings.  Bolano wants to work the reader hard; he attempts to retain a sense of mystery, and wants understanding to be elusive.  In terms of the ‘totality’, both Chris and Hugo noted how Bolano’s works are related and connected.  However, Chris observed that there are many inconsistencies – characters’ reappear in other books but sometimes with different names.  Thus, there is some sense of a plan behind the totality of the work, but not a real plan given all these inconsistencies.  Chris said that these are a small price to pay for the whole.  Ethics: Bolano was quite a moralist in his fiction (if not in life).  His cardinal vice was ‘cosying up to power’, whilst his cardinal virtue is courage – a view that I share wholeheartedly.  Courage in Bolano’s works is often represented by duels.  Finally, poets are everywhere in Bolano’s stories, both as a metaphor for the creative class but also because Bolano himself was a poet before he began writing novels.  Poetry is important to him. 

Chris was asked about the method of interpretation, and gave an interesting insight when he said that often the first translation is very dry and awkward and does not retain the poetry of the original; it takes a lot of work to then arrive at a real sense of the original Spanish in English.  An observation was then made from a member of the audience which the panel agreed with, as do I, when it was argued that had Bolano lived a long life, the sense of a real plan interlinking his entire work may never have been forthcoming, and we would have instead what we have now, a lack of a definitive ending to everything, where, appropriately enough, the session was ended!  Very interesting.  I have The Savage Detectives and 2666 on my shelf, their weight pressing down into the wood, but feel now that I have a much greater awareness of what awaits me. 

4.  ‘Australian Stories’ with Thomas Keneally (Australians – Origins to Eureka), Jack Marx (Australian Tragic), Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers), moderated by Richard Glover.  A fun romp through some tall tales, interesting facts, and myths that each author has come across as an antidote to the view in school-children that ‘Australian history is boring’.  Richard opened the session with Mark Twain’s famous quote from his journey to Australia, which Peter Carey used as a quote before his excellent Illywhacker, and which appears in the excellent: The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia (see my review), that Australia’s history ‘reads like the most beautiful lies’. 

There were some interesting observations made by each panelist.  For instance, Jack believed that one Australian myth is that of ‘mateship’ – he felt there is nothing special about Australian male bonds than anywhere else in the world.  Tom noted that one myth is the notion that all aboriginals were ‘supine’ to white settlement.  This was an interesting observation for me, for I am well aware that many of the aboriginals of the day openly resisted.  This notion was explored further after a question on why the stories of violence toward aboriginals goes untold.  Again, I found this an interesting assertion, as I was aware of these stories myself, but perhaps they are untold.  Jack observed that the violence continues today, providing the example of the indigenous man killed a couple of years back on Palm Is by a policeman and the lack of punishment.  Michael’s myth is the notion that ‘everyone died searching for an inland sea’, noting the irony that as far as he was aware, the only man to die whilst searching for an inland sea was a man by the name of ‘Poole'(!). 

All-in-all, the session was proof that there is a myriad of interesting stories that constantly fuel and refuel our understanding of the past, and the idea that those things that are swept under the carpet or assumed to be isolated things in our history, and thus unimportant, are actually rife within the primary records of the day, and it is not hard to find facts and myths and wonderful things if we merely open the page – an apt thought on which to end my musings on the 2010 SWF – thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring, fun, and yes, a little damp, but my mind was definitely expanded. 

Let me know your thoughts.  What were your SWF highlights? 

The D!

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