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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney by Delia Falconer

New South

2010

ISBN: 9781921410925

258 pages (plus additional extensive acknowledgements)

Source: purchased at SWF 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay

Allen & Unwin

2011

ISBN: 9781742372426

305 pages

Source: purchased at SWF 2011!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Vintage

2011

ISBN: 9781864710601

216 pages

Source: purchased (and signed!) at SWF 2011

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What a great read!  Talking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week, the very humble and witty David Mitchell said that he is interested in interconnectedness.  When writing Ghostwritten, his first novel, a collection of nine ‘long’ stories, he said he started out with the first three or so as separate entities and it was only after these that he recognised teh true character of the novel he was writing and started to see the connections between characters and use recurring motifs.  He said he was interested in the question of how and why things happen.  The stories offer numerous possible answers, including chance, fate, luck, God, mistakes, the ghost in the machine.  Mo Muntervary, the protagonist of ‘Clear Island’, thinks [p375]:

Phenomena are interconnected regardless of distance, in a holistic ocean more voodoo than Newton.

The risk with multi-protagonist novels is that one (or more) of the characters lacks something that the others have, that their stories are not of equal quality.  Well, there’s no danger of that here.  The nine stories take us around the world, from the Orient and Mongolia to Petersburg, then Ireland, London and New York.  Each has vitality, linkages, humour, and tragedy.

Mitchell’s fascination with interconnectedness extends beyond this book too – with characters showing up in more than one book.  One of the things he said with regard to this practice was that he does it in part to amuse himself.  One of the joys of this book for us readers is that we can see those moments and share in them.  This extends from the more obvious questions of how does one character fit in another’s story, down through ‘mid-level’ recurrences such as notions of physics, and all the way to motifs which reappear, such as camphor trees, comets, quasars or Kilmagoon whiskey.  As a reader, part of the fun is in those moments of frisson when you become aware or spot another link.

One of the slight misgivings I had with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was that some of the descriptions of ‘place’ seem disconnected or just ‘dropped in’.  There is no evidence of that here.  The descriptions of the cities like Okinawa, Tokyo, Hong Kong and London are vivid and grounded.  Having lived in London, I particularly liked the way Mitchell links the web of suburbs into the narrative (by the sexual conquests of a writer named Marco no less!).  Some other descriptions of setting are imaginative, for example the old Battersea power station described as an upturned table.  The way Mitchell depicts the passage of time in Tokyo through the cherry blossoms is wonderful.  Then they fall thus, [p60]:

The last of the cherry blossom.  On the tree, it turns ever more perfect.  And when it’s perfect, it falls.  And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up.  So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air … I think that only we Japanese can really understand that, don’t you?’

There’s loads of witty moments too.  Writers are not to be trusted, thinks one character, because they make everything up.  Another character has received a postcard from a friend with a photo of Earth, on which he has written, ‘wish you were here.’  In a lovely description of the forces of physics, gravity is described as being ‘the most down to earth’!  And Schrödinger the cat ‘looks around hypercritically.’

It’s really hard to pick the best of them.  Even the Mongolia chapter, which seemed to sag ever so slightly in the middle, came with such a kick ending that you soon forget any quibbles.  I loved the ‘Clear Island’ chapter, the story of quantum physicist Mo Muntervary, whose brilliant technology has found its way into smart bombs.  She tries to resign but the firm she works for won’t let her.  She goes on the run, escaping back to the island off the coast of west Ireland where she was born and raised.  The way things end up for Mo is spellbinding.  ‘Night Train’, the final of the nine stories, (before a short capstone chapter), is hilarious, with the mysterious caller to Bat Segundo’s late night radio show in New York.  The way Bat assists ‘Zookeeper’ as the person calls themselves in deciding what to do with the animals in the zoo is breathtaking.

AS Byatt proclaimed Ghostwritten to be “the best first novel I have ever read.”  High praise and warranted.  If you haven’t read it yet, make a bee-line for it.  David Mitchell at his best.  Superb.

(The notion of interconnectedness came up elsewhere at SWF 2011: I’m now off to read Gail Jones’s Five Bells which sees the lives of four adults come together in Circular Quay on a single day, and after that I’ve lined up The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay, which is also set in Sydney and links three separate characters across time in a rather unusual way: stay tuned!)

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Sceptre

1999

ISBN: 9780340739754

436 pages

Source: the local municipal library

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Session #191: ‘The Big Reading’: Mitchell, Cunningham, Obreht, Miller, Abdolah: 

Just a short post on this afternoon’s ‘Big Reading’ – a SWF stalwart session.  This year was a real cavalcade of literary luminaries: in reading order:

1. Kei Miller: reading from The Same Earth – not his most recent work, but his debut novel.  A charming section describing a peculiar ‘countdown’ naming convention used by a family of 6 – which started with a boy who became known as ‘Five’ and then subsequent siblings right down to ‘Zero’, a simple boy who witnessed something horrific, something that changes him forever. 

2: David Mitchell: reading something from his next novel!   It’s part set in the future – a very dystopic future by the look of things! – and the main theme of the piece he read out was ageism.  Not surprisingly for Mitchell, there are more than one narrative strand – one set in this future world, another set in the ‘Land of Youth’ … very intriguing and wonderful to hear something fresh.  Kudos to him. 

3. Tea Obreht: reading part of the chapter from her acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife (see my review here) which introduces us to her wonderful – and much loved – character: ‘The Deathless Man’. 

4. Kader Abdolah: easily the most moving of tonight’s stories: Kader told an autobiographical story.  He is from Iran and fled as a refugee, in the process letting down his father because he left him behind.  He ended up in The Netherlands and then tried several quite humorous (and heartbreaking) times to get into the USA.  He learnt Dutch and now writes in Dutch (even translating the Koran into Dutch too).  To get up and speak as he did about his life in English was brilliant.  He then read us a few brief lines from his book The House of the Mosque.  He said the book was his way of travelling home to Iran, the place he can only go now in the imagination.  Wonderful. 

5. Michael Cunningham: he of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours fame, followed in David’s steps by reading us a chapter called The Snow Princess from his next novel, which focussed on the body of a woman who has been dead a week, her body frozen in death in the snow, how she was in a state of ‘in between’ – some of which he had written only last night!  (He said he gets a little weary of reading from what are for him ‘old’ novels.)  Another very exciting glimpse into the stories that will be hitting bookshelves, kindles, i-pads, etc, etc, in the (hopefully) not-to-distant future.  I dare say Cunningham fans will not be disappointed. 

Enjoyed it immensely and will be looking out for Miller and Abdolah’s work, which I’ve not yet read.

The D!

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Session #145: ‘The Vagabonds’: David Mitchell and Daniel Swift in Conversation with Louise Adler

Bomber County is Daniel Swift’s first book.  It was, in part, an attempt to trace what happened to his grandfather who flew in British bombers in WWII and was shot down.  It also looks at the people who were being bombed, what it was like for them, and so the book links the loss of his grandfather with a much greater story of loss.  It is part memoir, part history. 

David Mitchell needs no introduction! 

Both authors were asked about the research in writing historical works, fiction and non-fiction, and how they know when it’s time to stop.  Daniel said you know when to stop things become familiar.  He interviewed many Germans and those who knew his grandfather.  When their stories began to come together – when he started to hear ‘echoes’ between stories – he knew he was near the end.  One of his interests in the telling of history is those things which are left unsaid.  Sometimes it’s not best to know everything in its purest form.  He talked of how the letters airmen wrote home were bland, ‘nothing happened today’-sort of notes, but when he looked at their flight logs for that day they’d been flying over some German city and dropping bombs.  This gap intrigued him.  Bomber County also examines the poetry of WWII. 

David Mitchell came at things from the other end, starting with nothing.  He said there are two forms of research: hard and soft.  The hard research is ‘the girders of history’ – the facts and interconnections (a recurring theme for him) – and where in history a novel might be positioned.  For him, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, was placed within the Napoleonic period because he saw it as this tectonic shift which generated its own conflict in which the story could be grounded.  Then the ‘soft’ research commences when you start writing – those ‘1,001 ways human needs are met or not met’ – things like, ‘If you’re sick, what do you do?’ and ‘If you’re hungry…’ and so on.  You do this research, know it, then hide it.  He gave a very humourous account of how not to ‘hide’ the research, describing at length the lighting of a sperm oil lamp or a tallow candle.  He said it might be funny now, but it’s horrible when it was written!  Research operates on the iceberg principle – the 90% needs to be there, hidden, otherwise the top sinks without a trace.  It took him four years to write the book. 

Daniel was asked about the morality of the bombing Dresden.  He talked of how difficult it is, how risky for us, to pass judgement. 

David was asked about the structure of Autumns – why he moved us off Dejima and away to the temple.  He said the structure of a book reveals itself – the book will tell you how it should be written.  The walled island, he felt, could really only sustain part of the story rather than a whole one.  He said he needed to leave Dejima before it became boring.  (I’m not so sure about that, I’m sure he could have pulled it off, and for me, the middle part of the story didn’t quite work as well as the Dejima sections). 

He was asked about the midwife character – and he talked about how she came to be a midwife.  He had to ask himself, how do I get a woman onto the island, when there were only traders and prostitutes and spies allowed there?  ‘You wade through a minefield of implausibility until something works.’  A midwife ‘bends’ but doesn’t break, it’s plausible.  Writing, he said, is an ‘act of escapology’.  I really like this, and it ties in with what Markus Zusak said in yessterday when he said ‘I don’t have a good imagination, I just have a lot of problems.’  It’s fascinating that many authors feel this way. 

There was a very interesting discussion about the intersection of non-fiction and fiction.  David talked about the end of movies like Platoon – those images set the terms for people’s understanding of that period of history.  He called it ‘the Oliver Stone Syndrome’!  The border between fiction and nonfiction is ‘unfenced and unpatrolled’.  History isn’t always a matter of what happened, it’s what we think now about what happened.  Fiction, in many ways almost stands in for fact.  Is this a good thing?  He obfuscated a little here, saying he didn’t like the idea of all that power in the hands on one person.  He added that writing has an ethical dimension.  If writers ignore the ethical dimension, it makes writing soulless.  (If only we had Kate Grenville to chime in wither her thoughts here given all the fuss The Secret River and the so-called ‘History Wars’!)

When asked for tips on research, Daniel said that while archives and libraries are good start, other sources are often as good.  He said reading a natural history text on animals in London from 1946 told him a lot about the time.  David’s 2 tips: do the background research, but don’t do the background to the background.  Otherwise 4 years might become 14!  Secondly, stay receptive to happenstance – sometimes the way in is not through the front door.  He then talked about how living in Holland made him aware that a Dutch snowflake is different to an English one.  Found objects, like this piece of knowledge, are often the best, so ‘stay open’.  Beyond that, do what you can, make it up and ‘get your wife to read it’!  He gave a wonderful description of how he tests how good a piece of writing is: he gives it to his wife on the night that it’s her turn to cook and if she has time to prepare a feast then he knows the manuscript is boring, but if dinner is thrown together and a mess, then he knows he’s onto something good!  (I love that – fantastic!) 

A very entertaining session and very interesting for those of us who dabble in research projects from time to time. 

The D!

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