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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Carey’

SWF LogoIt was a grey, cold and wet start to the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) today, but I kicked it off in great style with ‘The Uncommon Reader’. Tegan Bennett Daylight chaired an engaging panel discussion with respected critics James Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White on what books have inspired them, from their formative years through to their predictions on the classics of tomorrow. I’ll just pick out a few talking points…

There was a discussion about the moment they began to feel like they wanted or needed to reply to books. James said it wasn’t until university that he was taught to read better, at which point he began to be a better reader, or observer, of the world as well. I think this is true of all us readers.

Both Geordie and Jane spoke of the enthusiasm that works such as Wood’s The Broken Estate allowed them to have. Jane said she still reads with a child’s enthusiasm now, something that was evident when she spoke about her favourites.

For James, he wanted to be able to write about things that made him DSC03665 - Harbour Bridge in Mistwant to burst out and say ‘this is bloody good!’. He writes not for academics, but for other readers.

Tegan asked a great question about what are the books that these avid readers return to, time and again. For Geordie, it is V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. From Naipaul, post-colonial literature emerges. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a most ‘writerly’ book, something he leafs through when he feels a little stale.

James also admires Naipaul, noting A House for Mr Biswas as a very funny and poignant work. But for him, ‘the one’ is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a favourite of mine too. It has, he said, the thing so many works of fiction lack: the ideal ending.

Jane gets excited about any new translations of works by Homer and Tolstoy. But the two works she picked out are F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its ‘flawless prose’ (she read a passage of this out, endearingly trying not to cry!), and a favourite of mine: Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (my review).

Thoughts then turned to books and writers of today that will last. Tegan offered Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro. Geordie split the discussion into local and international contexts. For his local, he gave Tim Winton, admiring Winton’s ability to pull off writing that appeals to a wide audience and is also ‘pregnant with intelligence’. He had a smile when saying Stephen Romei had rung him to say the new Winton has just been delivered (expect it on your nearest bookshelf soon! – no title was given). For a global context, he offered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a ‘generational shift’, and praised the first page of Wallace’s unfinished work The Pale King.

James echoed Geordie’s praise of the opening to The Pale King, and agreed with Tim Winton. To that he added his admiration for Peter Carey, saying that while he liked his more recent works, he is eagerly hoping for the next ‘great novel’ from him, something to rival Illywhacker (my review) and Oscar and Lucinda (my review). (Given they are two of my favourite novels, I couldn’t agree more!) He also noted Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel. For his international, he picked out W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (which is featured in Wood’s most recent work of criticism The Fun Stuff and Other Essays). 

For Jane, it is Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But the one that ‘knocked her socks off’ recently was Atomised by French author Michel Houellebecq, which had James Wood nodding too. Jane was positively gushing in her praise, and has blogged about Atomised at Bookish Girl.

For all that, the one author not mentioned, but mentioned by an audience member in a question was Jane Austen. Geordie swung this to Tegan, who re-reads every Austen each year, (and is an admirer of Northanger Abbey, whereas Jane Gleeson-White said she’s more a Persuasion fan (as am I).

I left with the feeling that if I had only attended one session at this years’ festival, then this would have been a great one to choose. The reading list alone would keep me going with great reads for a good while. The panel spoke with intelligence, wit, and above all, enthusiasm about the thing that brings us all together: books.

I’ll have more SWF musings over the coming days and weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The word that comes to mind when I think about Cole and Utopian Man itself is ‘charming’.  How could you not love an eccentric like Edward Cole, purveyor of books in the magical Cole’s Book Arcade, a man who would rather invest in rainbows than land?  (I might be biased here: I organise my bookshelf as a rainbow based on the colour of book spines!)  I say man rather than character (although he was certainly the latter) because Cole was a real person who lived in Melbourne in the late 1800s-early 1900s.  The aptly titled Utopian Man brings his remarkable life, well, to life.  The title is an apt one for he was more than just a fancier of whimsy; he was a man of some vision.  He railed against the White Australia Act and the racism it sanctioned.  He saw this racism first-hand when pamphlets he had published and distributed in his store came back to him with scorn and sometimes spit.  He was disappointed in his friend Deakin, whom he had known before he became Prime Minister, because Deakin was a supporter of the Act.

We first encounter Edward in a prologue in which he is recuperating after illness in old age:

He instructed the gardener to plant a seventy-foot floral rainbow, a sweeping curve of petunias, marigolds and pansies.  When it was finished, he asked Eddy to construct a series of mirrors, like a periscope, so he could see the coloured flowers from his bed.  

This sets the tone for much of the story, taking in Edward’s troubled past on the goldfields—where he made some money with a Chinese partner, Lucky Cho, whose memory stalks Edward like a ghost—through to his book arcade and the ‘Wonderland’ he creates therein.  Along the way he advertises for a wife in the Herald, which proves a success, and he soon marries Eliza.  They have a bevy of beautiful children.  Their social life is somewhat curtailed, owing to Edward’s preference for the arcade and for family, but they move in the circles of powerful businessmen like Edward’s friend, D’Ama, who is always around to advise on aspects of business.

Trouble looms in the form of a great recession.  Banks and businesses and land speculators go bust.  One of their circle of loose friends, Mr Endicott, shoots himself and forces his wife, Joy, to make money by dubious means, including the running of séances.  Edward ignores the problems with his own business when Ruby, his youngest, dies of scarlet fever.  The pain both Edward and Eliza feel is palpable.  Eliza seeks solace in the séances.  Things get interesting when, during the séance, Joy runs her hand down Edward’s leg when everyone’s eyes are closed and tells him to think about having an affair.  She then inveigles herself into Eliza’s good books and life by claiming that she can see a white bird above Eliza’s head.  This forces Edward into a nice dilemma.  Joy brings some comfort to the shattered Eliza but he doesn’t want her near them because of her offer.  Meanwhile, Edward finds his own way of handling the loss of his child: he talks to her on the rooftop of the arcade.

There is much to like in Edward’s response to things, and the way he forges ahead with plans to expand the many-faceted attractions of the arcade when D’Ama is advising him to get out before things get really bad.  We fear that Edward’s aloofness from the realities of life and business mean that he is heading toward financial ruin.  When he does turn his attention to the running of the business, he is unable to see a different disaster looming for one of his children.

I first came across both Utopian Man and Lisa Lang at a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where she gave a reading and discussed her novel along with the other Vogel contenders of that year.  So reading the actual book gave me a feeling of coming home to something, a pleasant déjà vu.  This sensation was no doubt assisted by a lovely interview with Lisa Lang that Angela Myer did for her blog, Literary Minded, which I saw a few days before reading the book.  (The video is the one half of the first instalment of what will become a series of author interviews.  Go and take a peek here.)    Another reason for my response was the resonances Utopian Man has with Peter Carey’s Illywhacker – a personal favourite of mine in which the protagonist, Herbert Badgery, ends up with this marvellous arcade of animals and other curios in Sydney—an establishment very reminiscent of Cole’s Book Arcade.  (I’d love to know whether Carey knew of Cole when he wrote Illywhacker.)

You might also like to check out Lang’s responses to Lisa Hill’s list of author questions in her ‘Meet an Aussie Author’ series at ANZLitLovers.

I quite enjoyed Utopian Man, a story about an idealist.  Edward Cole is my kind of person.  His prognostication that the White Australia policy would one day fail has come to pass.  In many respects we’ve come a long way since those days; in others we’ve perhaps got a ways to go.  Where are our modern-day Utopian Men and Women?

I’ll leave the last word to Cole, who imparts some sage advice toward the end of the book:

Remember, books are never destinations, they are adventures, so have as many of them as you can.  

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

2010

Text

245 pages

ISBN: 9781742373348

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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There have been many enjoyable reads this year.  The Boat by Nam Le got 2011 off to a great start with a collection of disperse and riveting ‘long’ shorts.  I then had the pleasure of re-visiting two of Peter Carey’s great novels in Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.  One of the standouts of the year was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, winner of the Miles Franklin.  I thoroughly enjoyed David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten – so clever and absorbing, the way the inter-linkages worked was very impressive.  Then onto another debut novel, this time from an Australian, with Favel Parret’s wonderful Past the Shallows.  There was time for some great classics too, like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Later in the year I was thrilled and appalled by Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – what a ride!  And speaking of rides, what a way to end the year with The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño: part road story, part loss of innocence, every part fantastic.  You can find the reviews of any of these by searching or by clicking on the tags at the end of this post.

What were your favourites this year?

As for 2012, I’m not about to go in for any challenges.  I just plan on reading more classics, both old – Anna Karenina – and more recent – Bolaño’s epic 2666.  And I shall keep abreast of some hot-off-the-press works.  Apart from that, I shall go where the wind takes me.

I hope you join me for future musings!

All the best for the new year.

John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney by Delia Falconer

New South

2010

ISBN: 9781921410925

258 pages (plus additional extensive acknowledgements)

Source: purchased at SWF 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D!

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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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