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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Winton’

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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Well!  I was enjoying Carpentaria so much I extended Indigenous Literature Week to ten days!

I’m a fan of big, sprawling, unruly books, even more so if they have elements of magic realism (Midnight’s Children, Illywhacker anyone?) – and Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin-winner is one of those books.  Set in the coastal town of Desperance, it’s a story about the indigenous Phantom family, headed by Norm, who live in the Westend of Pricklebush, and their running battles with both the Eastend mob, led by Joseph Midnight, as well as the white fella inhabitants of Uptown and operators of the Gurfurrit mine.  As you can no-doubt tell, Wright has a lot of fun with wordplay.  The names are a case in point, beginning with the town in which the story is set: the wonderfully named Desperance in the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the western coast of far north Queensland.

There is indeed a sense of desperation that underpins the story, with the constant threat of cyclones in the west season; the social breakdown that undermines some indigenous families; the racist Uptowners’ beatings and murders of indigenous people, including children; the fight (by some but not all) against the multi-national mine; and the in-fighting between different the Westend and Eastend aboriginal groups, who are disputing the ownership of Native Title rights for the land and sea around Desperance, (this battle having been going on for longer than white settlement).  The uneasy relationship between indigenous culture and Christianity is also present, with numerous references to biblical stories and themes.

Part of the book’s power is the sheer energy of the narrative voice.  Told in the (increasingly rare?) omniscient narrator, with numerous time loops and disconnected strands, Carpentaria is a force of nature as strong as the Gulf’s winds.  Although in some ways it reminded me of Rodney Hall’s equally wild Miles Franklin-winner Just Relations (my review), there is a sense that the way the story is told could only have been realised by an indigenous author.  It is dripping with symbolism and myth.  Dreams slip into reality and vice-versa.  A particular brand of humour is never far away, either.  Early in the story the town council debate whether to erect a “giant something” in the middle of town, like “the world’s biggest stubby [beer bottle], or the world’s biggest drunk”, or even a giant miner with a pick-axe!

There is a veritable carousel of characters, both indigenous and non-indigenous.  There is the enigmatic Angel Day, once wife of Normal (Norm) Phantom, who left him for the religious zealot Mozzie Fishman, a man with whom the community has an edgy relationship.  Fishman has a strange convoy of followers that comes and goes with him “in a red cloud of mystery”, often spending years at a time away from Desperance, “their convey contin[uing] an ancient religious crusade along the spiritual travelling road of the great ancestor, whose journey continues to span the entire continent and is older than time itself”.  Will Phantom, returned with Fishman after some time way, has been disowned by Norm for reasons that are unclear in the early part of the book but which form part of the backbone of the story.  There is also the mysterious Elias Smith, who arrives from the sea and has a mystical relationship with groper fish.  Elias becomes Norm’s friend, but although the town welcome him at first, he is eventually driven out of the town, returning to the sea in much the same way he came from it, but not before the mining company’s men have their way with him.  Then there are the anglo Uptown folk, like the local cop, Constable Truthful, and the blunt and violent mayor, Bruiser.  There are, for all the obvious factions in Desperance, some peculiar, in some cases disturbing relationships between some of the characters – the exploitive relationship between Truthful and Girlie Normal is a case in point.

The other character in the book is the setting.  A place of maddening winds and humidity so thick it “was a plain old sticky syrup falling through the atmosphere like a curse”, Desperance is seared into my brain.  It’s a country in which “legends and ghosts live side by side”.  It is also the sea, and the magic that lies therein.  When Elias makes his stunning entrance the scene is set thus:

Once upon a time, not even so long ago, while voyaging in the blackest of midnights, a strong sea man, who was a wizard of many oceans, had his memory stolen by thieving sea monsters hissing spindrift and spume as they sped away across the tops of stormy waves grown taller than the trees.

This also gives a sense of the magic realism utilised by Wright.  One of the more lyrical aspects of the story, though small, is the wonderful relationship the local hotelier, Lloydie, has with the mermaid sea spirit who is locked in the wood of the bar behind which he serves (and on which he sleeps at night).  There are also many Dreamtime–magic realism ‘fusion’ moments.  Norm stuffs dead fish and paints them in his workshop, a place in which the spirits of dead people speak to him.  There’s another sublime and moving scene in which Norm returns Elias’s body to the sea, guided by the big gropers with which Elias had a special bond.  And there’s another moving scene set in a cave in which three aboriginal children are laid to rest after being murdered while in police custody.

Most of the characters are deeply flawed.  The indigenous–non-indigenous divide is powerfully realised.  When Constable Truthful threatens Mozzie, for instance, his response is unequivocal:

‘You will die one day,’ the policeman warned, wagging his finger at Mozzie.  ‘You will know,’ Mozzie repeated, with a mocking sputter of spit, a little choking, and then silence.

But problems within the indigenous community are not papered over, either.  There is nothing magical about the three children’s demise.  Abandoned by parents and left to their own devices, they become petrol-sniffing addicts.  It’s a powerful indictment of the social breakdown on all sides which leads to this tragedy in the real world.  In a macabre twist, while the kids are in jail, the Uptowners are more concerned with their hens laying good eggs than why there are three children in custody.

The establishment of the Gurfurrit mine changes the town irrevocably:

Desperance had become a boom town with a more sophisticated outlook now, because it belonged totally to the big mine.  When the mine came along with its big equipment, big ideas, big dollars from the bank – Well!  Why not?  Every bit of Uptown humanity went for it – lock, stock and barrel.  The mine bought off the lot of them, including those dogs over Eastside.  They would be getting their just deserts, Westside told those traitors who ran down to the mine crawling on their stomachs for a job.   

But it’s not just the Eastsiders who go down the mine.  Three of Norm and Angel’s children get jobs there.  The youngest (and brightest), Kevin, is injured in an accident on his first day.  He is brain-damaged, his prospects and life stolen.  (There’s a wonderful moment in which Kevin, before his accident, is complaining of having to write an essay on Tim Winton – the doyen of coastal Australian tales!)  There is the sense that the ancient Dreamtime serpent, living underground, whose journey has been continued by Fishman and by association Will Phantom, has been disturbed by the mine.  Bad things start to occur to the town as soon as the mine opened.  Elias was murdered by the mining company.  Birds are drinking the contaminated water in the tailings dam and giving birth to mutations.  And not content with the land on which the mine itself sits, the company’s representatives are found by Will on other ancestral land that is sacred to the Phantoms.  There is an imbalance that needs to be put right.  Aided and abetted by Fishman’s crew, Will acts against the mine, with tragic consequences.

The book is not without blemishes.  There are some sections, particularly early on, that are overly long.  Also, Wright’s penchant for the oft-used “Well!” strangely seeps into different characters’ dialogue, which makes it sound as though the narrator is speaking.  She also rides roughshod over good grammar.  Pity the poor grammarian trying to make sense of missing commas, commas in wrong places, missing apostrophes and so on!  (There were also several proofreading errors in my copy, such as ‘breathe’ for ‘breath’, ‘too’ for ‘to’, ‘empathise’ for ‘emphasise’, and ‘gasp’ for ‘grasp’.)  I’ve got mixed feelings about the grammar.  The inconsistencies within the text may send some readers around the bend a little.  There are lengthy sections with pristine grammar, then sections that  are rough around the edges, which feel like they could have done with another round of editing.  Although sometimes distracting, and although there were sentences that technically had one meaning when they actually meant something else, there were few if any occasions when I didn’t have the sense of what the meaning should be.  I wonder whether the voice would have been crimped had grammatical conventions been followed to the letter.  I’m not so sure – I think the voice is powerful enough to survive good grammar.  I’d love to hear your views.

Given the story’s desperation, the book’s climactic scenes deliver a welcome catharsis.  There is a rebalancing of the Dreamtime spirits.  Through a cacophony of frogs, the landscape sings itself afresh.  Carpentaria is a powerful story, one that works away at you on many levels.  The mix of Dreamtime, myth, magic and harsh, frontier realism will stay with me for a long time.

I read this as part of Indigenous Literature Week 2012, hosted here by Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers.  Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely muse on her memories of the novel here.

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

2006

Giramondo

519 pages

ISBN: 9781920882174

Source: the local municipal library

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Another fabulous day by the harbour for Friday at the SWF.  A brief muse on today’s sessions…

I started the day by going to the very interesting session ‘Book Design: The Story from Back to Front’ which celebrated the work of the designers of the books we love, featuring Stephen Banham, Hugh Ford, Melanie Feddersen, and facilitated by Zoe Sadokierski.  I’ll just pick out a couple of short points made…

I think Melanie Feddersen is my kind of book designer.  She related the charming story of how, from an early age, when she bought a new book she would write in it what she did that day and why she had bought that particular book.  Working as a freelance designer, Feddersen talked about her experience developing the design of a YA novel she worked on, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley.  For us fiction lovers, this was particularly interesting.  She explained where she got ideas from, starting with the publisher’s brief, reading the manuscript itself, and taking visual and textual clues from every part of her life.  She showed examples of the early design of the book cover, how a searchlight shining on a girl’s face worked with the book’s mood and themes of teenage ‘searching’.  A design was approved but then she was asked to change it!  The publisher wanted something more to do with graffiti in the cover.  Back to the drawing board – and she came up with the design shown in the photo to the left here – what a fantastic design(!) – working-in the graffiti can and spraying words.  Brilliant!  She then showed international versions of Graffiti Moon’s cover – there was such a wide range if interpretations and designs it often looked like a totally different book.  It’s rare that one design is used in a different territory.

Banham, a graphic designer / typographer, talked about the way everything is changing in design of books.  He explained the way he had approached a recent graphic design book not from the angle of the front-to-back cover design, but from the angle of how the design would appear as an ‘app’ on someone’s smart phone / tablet / web-site.  Increasingly, readers are buying electronic copies and this sense of ‘branding’ is very important, something that can translate across electronic mediums.  Font types are chosen only if they are a web font.

My second session was ‘The Sweep of Narrative’: Elliot Perlman talking about his novel The Street Sweeper, which deals with the holocaust, and race relations in America.  Perlman was very engaging, telling the story of the development of the novel, which commenced with a question that needed answering.  An oral history was recorded post-war Europe with Jewish survivors of the holocaust by psychologist David Boder.  When he had interviewed over 100, he was heard on the voice record he was making (which had a huge historical significance of its own), saying, ‘Who is going to sit in judgement over this [holocaust]?’  There was a pause and then he said, ‘Who is going to stand in judgement over my work?’  Perlman wondered why this man should have any guilt over what he was doing / had done, and knew that the answer to that question would become the subject of his work.  It took him six years to research and write, and he relayed how he hand interviewed hospital janitors, historians at Columbia University, African Americans, and students (now aged 80 or so) of Boder himself – a huge amount of work.  He also met the last living survivor of the group of Jewish prisoners who were tasked under the threat of death with the horrific task of undressing the bodies of Jews gassed in Auschwitz.  This man’s story became a character in the book.  Wonderful anecdotes of a book that has gotten rave reviews and is on my shelf as I type!

The third session of the day was ‘Classic’ – a discussion of Australian literary classics with Kate Grenville, Thomas Keneally, (both featured in Text Publishing’s new ‘Text Classics’ range of books), as well as Geordie Williamson and Text’s Michael Heyward.  First of all, full marks to Text Publishing for producing the Text Classic series http://textclassics.com.au/ , bringing back into print many books that should be read – one of which, Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is on my TBR.

There was a lot of discussion about how some things have changed in the Australian ‘canon’ – the fact that we have one for starters – and perhaps, how some other things might still need changing.  Keneally spoke about early Australian influences being Patrick White (Riders in the Chariot in particular), as well as poets Kenneth Slessor and Douglas Stewart.  He wanted to continue their work, joking about ‘the arrogance of young writers is breathtaking’(!).  He lamented the economic fundamentalism in publishing, how nowadays the poor editor has to not just get the book ready for publication but then get it by the corporate gatekeepers in Sales and Marketing.  As for more recent classics, he pointed to one of my favourites, Peter Carey’s Illwhacker (see my review).

For Grenville, growing up, writers were ‘dead white British males’.  Henry Lawson was as good as it got, though she also read Riders in the Chariot and although she was too young to understand it fully, she knew it was ‘something extraordinary’.  She also loved The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, another in the Text Classics series, as well as Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes – cue much communal love!  She spoke about how we are so ‘prize’ focussed when all books are part of what she likened to a forest ecosystem.  ‘There are giant oaks and there is moss and mushroom’, but every one is part of the system and need each other.

Following on from this wonderful analogy, and perhaps the best thing said in this session, was Geordie Williamson’s approach to thinking about the relationships between books, how the ‘density of the links is our culture’.  What a great summation.  He said we need to clear a cultural space around books – and gave the example of how the classic Careful He Might Hear You, by Sumner Locke Elliot, sold tens of thousands of copies in Germany, but before it won the Miles Franklin in 1963, had only sold 7 copies in Australia!  There was a lot of discussion about the role of improving education both in school and university level.  Geordie Williamson said that undergraduates and postgraduates are not obliged to read actual texts!  But all agreed that there is a real appetite for Australian writing as show in the success of someone like Tim Winton.  A good, fun session… many books added to the TBR – too many to list here!  BTW: Geordie Williamson is writing a book about the Australian canon, to be published later this year, entitled The Burning Library, so stay tuned for that.

That’s it for Day 2.  FYI: Radio National has SWF highlight programmes on both Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, plus additional programming across the next three days.

Join the SWF discussion on twitter @: #SWF2012.

Bring on Saturday!

D.

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Wow.  How can so much be achieved with so little?  That’s the question I’m asking myself after finishing Past the Shallows, Favel Parrett’s stunning debut novel.  The story is told from the dual perspectives of two young brothers, Harry and Miles, who are growing up in a very broken home in a small town on the southern Tasmanian coast, a place described as the end of the earth.  The weather whips up from the arctic full of ice and the storm swells are huge.  We meet Harry first up, and right from the start (p1) we get a clear picture of what ails him and the environment we are in:

Harry stood on the sand and looked down the wide, curved beach of Cloudy Bay.  Everything was clean and golden and crisp, the sky almost violet with the winter light, and he wished that he wasn’t afraid. 

But what is it that he is afraid of?  Is it his brothers going for a surf, or is it the: 

Water that was always there.  Always everywhere.  The sound and the smell and the cold waves making Harry different.  And it wasn’t just because he was the youngest.  He knew the way he felt about the ocean would never leave him now.  It would be there always, right inside him. 

Or does he fear his father?  Whatever it is, both he and Miles are looking for escape.  Their elder brother Joe has moved out (escaping also), and their mother died in a car accident.  Harry and Miles were in the car at the time but survived.  The older Miles tries to piece together his memories of that night as the story unfolds. 

Their father is a tyrant with a secret.  He is an abalone diver who takes Miles out as well as a couple of men from the town on his old boat.  The bank owns the boat and he tries to make ends meet by fishing in protected waters and bringing in undersized abalone.  But any little money he makes goes towards drink and the boys have to look after themselves.      

Joe and Miles go surfing in their spare time and Harry runs along the beach collecting things that they ask him to find, like cuttlefish bones and shark eggs.  Harry doesn’t like the water.  He is too young to go out on the boat with Miles and his father, and he gets sea-sick.  He manages to look after himself while they are out fishing, forging a friendship with George, a man who has been scarred by a horrific accident and lives with his dog, Jake.  It’s the dog who finds Harry one day on the road and Harry follows it home to George.  George looks after Harry and tells him stories about his mother, a mother he struggles to remember. 

Parrett’s writing has been compared to Tim Winton and there are definitely similarities.  There’s the coastal town setting, the broken characters, the sense of being trapped, the surfing scenes.  The writing, too, is similar, albeit even more sparse than recent Winton—as befits the perspective of our child protagonists.  It is lyrical.  There is a wonderful layering as well, with the memories of the car accident threaded through their day-to-day struggles. 

There’s some great writing on surfing, (Parrett surfs herself).  Here’s Miles revelling in the time he can escape from his father: (p135):

The rise and fall of the ocean breathing … He lived for this, for these moments when everything stops except your heart beating and time bends and ripples – moves past your eyes frame by frame and you feel beyond time and before time and no one can touch you. 

There is a heart-rending counterpoint to this a moment later when Miles’s joy is stolen as Joe tells him he is leaving town on the yacht he made himself, sailing off to the South Pacific.  Joe asks Miles to tell Harry because he couldn’t face telling him himself. 

Favel has said in a recent interview that the mentorship she obtained through the Australian Society of Authors was won on her third attempt.  If this isn’t proof that persistence pays, I don’t know what is!  To be mentioned in the same (dare I say) ‘breath’ as Winton was something I was wary of when I started reading.  I thought it would be an unfair comparison – one of our best to a debut novelist.  But whoever made the comparison had good reason.  Perhaps one day there will be other debut Australian authors who are compared to Favel Parrett.  It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.  

Past the Shallows is one of the books on review for August’s ‘First Tuesday Book Club’ on the ABC, along with a favourite classic of mine: Mikhail Bulgakov’s brilliant The Master and Margarita.  I can’t wait to see what the panel have to say about each.  

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett

Hachette

2011

ISBN: 978033626579

251 pages

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

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The Boat is a wonderful collection of short (and long) stories written by Australian author Nam Le.  Le came to Australia with his parents as refugees on a boat as a one year old and it seems the sense of travel has stuck with him, both in terms of his own peripatetic wanderings and the diverse settings he has created for these seven tales, including Iowa, Columbia, New York, Hiroshima, Tehran and the final piece, in which he relates the story of his and his parents incredible and harrowing voyage on a leaky boat to Australia.  This diversity of settings alone marks the collection as ambitious, yet setting alone would count for little were it not for the success of the stories themselves, for the stories, too, are incredibly diverse.

Take for instance, the second story, Cartagena, which centres on child assassin, Juan Pablo, in Columbia.  Juan Pablo has sucessfully escaped the streets in becoming an assassin and now has enough money to ensure his mother lives in a nice apartment.  But there are costs.  He is asked in the course of his duties to knock off one of his friends and refuses.  This, as you might suspect, doesn’t go down too well with his handler, ‘El Padre’, who calls him in for a ‘chat’.  Given that they have never met, it is clear that the assassin’s own head now lays on the chopping block.  The beauty of great short stories is that they leave you with unanswered questions.  In short, they leave you wanting something a little more.  The end of Cartagena, the coastal town which Juan Pablo dreams about escaping to, provides exactly the right balance.

There are some other gems too.  Halflead Bay is a coming-of-age story set in a Victorian coastal town, a place in which everything ‘stinks of fish’ due to the dwindling fishing industry there.  It focuses on the life of Jamie whose mother is dying and whose family are at odds at whether they should move to the larger nearby town in order to give her better care.  Jamie’s father doesn’t seem to love his son, or at least respect him.  Meanwhile, Jamie, newly feted for his heroics for the local footy team,  falls for a girl named Allison whose ex is the town bully, Dory Townsend, a man kept back a couple of years at school, and a man who is rumoured to have killed a Chinese immigrant fisherman.  If you think it all sounds a bit Tim Winton then you’d be right: Le’s ‘voice’ in this piece is very Winton-esque.  For example, this piece describing Jamie and Allison’s late night meeting (p146):

“He was dazed, for a moment, by the trespass in her voice.  He looked out.  In the high moon the water was sequined with light.  Muted flashes from the coastal freighters past the heads.  Beyond that, stars.”

Later, (p148), we have Allison described thus:

“She pulled back, teeth flashing, and then she was laughing, liquidly, into the night.  He waited, watching her.  Sensing, deeper and deeper, how profoundly her laughter excluded him.”

The writing is powerful and compares well with Winton.

Fortunately for us, Le is very un-Winton-esque in the sense that his next story is not in the same coastal setting with similarly slightly broken people finding their footing in the world, but in Hiroshima, followed by Tehran.

Tehran Calling is a highlight, a great story about friendship set against the backdrop of the totalitarian regime.  Sarah meets her best friend, Parvin, at a US university.  Parvin is a woman who left Tehran to go to the US, where she sets up a call-in radio programme agitating for change and woman’s rights in her homeland.  She has people call in from Iran and beams their stories back into Iran from the US.  But Parvin then decides to move back to Tehran, and after a failed romance Sarah goes to ‘visit’.  She tells Mahmoud, one of Parvin’s friends, that she has come to Iran ‘to escape a man.’  Mahmoud tells her, “Then you are the first American to escape to Iran.”

Sarah’s journey of self-discovery is set against Parvin’s friends’ efforts to protest their lack of rights.  The brutal rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl provides a stark introduction for Sarah into the ways of the regime.  Then Parvin herself goes missing.  She had been taken once before by the authorities, but all Sarah and her new friends can do is wait and see whether Parvin will turn up alive or dead.  The horrors of such repression are brought home with controlled ferocity by Le.

For a first book, The Boat is a great achievement.  None other than Cate Kennedy, one of Australia’s premier writers of short fiction, is quoted as saying that The Boat has put the short story back in the “literary centre stage.”  There’s no finer praise than that.

Who knows where Le’s imaginative footsteps will take him – and us – next?  I for one wait with eager anticipation.

The Boat by Nam Le

Penguin

2008

ISBN: 9780143009610

313 pages

Source: won in a twitter competition run by Penguin.

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What a lovely gem of a novella: dark and menacing, it’s definitely not to be read alone late at night that’s for sure!  Set in a brooding countryside valley known as ‘the Sink’, bordering a state forest, the story opens with our narrator, Maurice Stubbs, looking back on the events of a year ago.  Before this, he sees his neighbour Jacob “drunk as a mongrel” and shares with us the strange way in which he sees the dreams of the other characters – Ida, his wife, and Ronnie, a heavily pregnant girl who lives across the valley alone after her boyfriend leaves her.

The opening chapter, his introduction to the story, finishes thus:

He’ll [Jacob] be sober enough to start drinking again by now.  Since the day we dug a grave and drove to the hospital, the day we sat together like friends and drank half a case of Japanese scotch and talked and talked it all out, we haven’t said a word to one another.  It’s a year.

The four characters rarely had much to do with each other until a series of strange attacks on their livestock begin to occur.  Both Jacob and Ronnie are city or town folk, whereas Ida and Maurice are country people.  Jacob sees a shadow in his fields, but thinks he imagined it.  He soon comes into the life of Ronnie who drops acid after her boyfriend leaves and wanders around the valley tripping.  Meanwhile, Maurice and Ida’s dog is cut in half by something and only the head remains.  Maurice trudges the garden trying to find a trace of the creature and finds a large cat’s paw-print.  Drawn together by more livestock loses on Ronnie’s farm, the four of them plan their response.

Is it a feral cat?  Or a larger cat escaped from an overturned circus truck that Ida recalls driving passed many years earlier?  Or is it someone playing a cruel joke on them?  Is it a strange form of karmic revenge for the actions of Maurice as a boy, committed after his brother was blinded by the woman who lived in the house that Jacob now owns?

Maurice observes:

History.  Yes, that was when history started in on me.  The day after the dog was taken, the day Jacob found Ronnie half-crazed down by the river.  If only we hadn’t had so many things to hide, so many opportunities for fear to get to us.  You can keep it all firm and tidy for a time, but Godalmighty, when the continents begin to shift in you, you can’t tell tomorrow from yesterday, you run just like that herd of pigs, over the cliff and into the water.

Very quickly, things in the valley begin to unravel.  Whilst the men go hunting one night, the women stay at home and get drunk.  Ronnie is very nearly shot by Jacob soon thereafter as she wanders drunk on his property one night.  He misses her but hits the umbrella she holds against the rain.

The fear begins to eat away at them and ultimately gives rise to a horrifying event, something that the men are still waiting for a verdict on one year later.

Written back in 1988, in typical Winton prose, poetic and sparse, and as alive as the menacing thing in the winter dark, this is a chilling, spine-tingling story.  It offers a glimpse of what Winton is capable of as a story-teller on the odd occasion he leaves his signature, saurian-laced coastal tales.

I’ll never go walking at night again!

In The Winter Dark by Tim Winton

Penguin

ISBN: 9780140274035

132 pages

Source: The Local Library.

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Every time a new Tim Winton novel comes out I somehow find myself thinking, Ah, another story set in a coastal town in Western Australia, with a small cast of off-beat, earthy (yet never quirky), and slightly ‘broken’ characters, many of whom are known by their nickname, written in trademark ‘muscular’ prose with warm humour, and always, always the use of the word ‘saurian’ – an ever-present friend that has become so much of a trademark that it borders on a tic*.  Oh, and, of course, the Miles Franklin Award sticker on the front cover!  Perhaps this is why it has taken me some time to come around to reading the wonderful Breath.  That pretty much sums him up doesn’t it?  Well, the answer, as it turns out, is both yes and no.

Reading Winton is an engaging, physical experience.  You not only see the environment and people he depicts, you feel them.  In the Miles Franklin Award-winning (I warned you!) Breath, the prose is pared back to raw essentials – and what wonderful essentials they are.  There are no bells and whistles here; this is the antidote to those who dislike (or are at least a little weary of) the pyrotechnics of Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer and their ilk.  Instead, there is a precise economy.  The result?  Writing that reaches a new-found power.

It is fair to say that it ‘sings’ – and I use that word deliberately, because I relished the way in which the senses are so engaged, particularly sound.  Breath is such an aural experience, perhaps no surprise for a writer whose last novel (also a Miles Franklin winner) was entitled Dirt Music – if you can make music out of dirt, then think of the music you can make out of everything else!  The earth ‘hums’, oars creak in their rowlocks, wattlebirds ‘buzz’, kids’ bikes ‘whirr and clatter’, styrofoam surfboards ‘squeak’.  And then there is the ocean, the roaring surf, whose repeated descriptions over the course of a book might veer toward sameness in lesser hands, but Winton sustains the dynamism of the seascapes beautifully.  We get an early taste, and, like Bruce Pike, out narrator, we are hooked (p27):

Waves ground around the headland, line upon line of them, smooth and turquoise, reeling across the bay to spend themselves in a final mauling rush against the bar at the rivermouth.  The air seethed with noise and salt; I was giddy with it.

Later, Bruce tells of the first time he surfed ‘Old Smoky’ – the offshore giants that only get going in huge storm swells, (p113):

… the sight of the thing pitching out across the bommie drove a blade of fear right through me.  Just the sound of spray hissing back off the crest inspired terror; it was the sound of sheetmetal shearing itself to pieces.  The wave drove onto the shoal and the report cannoned across the water and slapped against my chest.

There is such energy in these passages; the writing whizzes us forward as if we are on (or watching!) those waves too.  And even when Winton does not describe the sound of something, such as the dour local baker’s ‘loaves like house bricks’, you still hear them in your head, clunking down onto the shop counter with supreme finality.  Elsewhere, Pikelet remembers (p67) coming home “at dusk with my ears ringing from the quiet.”  Music, it seems, is everywhere.

We first meet Bruce as a 50-year-old paramedic when he’s called out to what looks like an apparent teenage suicide.  But he sees through the dressed up situation to the truth that the mother wants hidden and his paramedic partner cannot see.  We then return to Bruce’s childhood growing up in Sawyer, a sleepy coastal town (I warned you!), where he is known as ‘Pikelet’ by his daring sidekick Loonie.  Pikelet and Loonie make fun by diving into the river and holding their breath, holding onto the ‘saurian’ tree roots (bingo!) on the bottom.  They also hold their breath and hyperventilate until their vision becomes tunnelled and they see stars.  But it is the surf that enthrals them and soon they find themselves in awe of ‘Sando’, a mid-30’s surfer dude married to the moody Eva.  They learn to surf and see Sando, a man who rides the biggest waves, as a God; and they become his disciples.  Sando soon takes them to offshore and distant breaks which, by turns, get larger, more thrilling, and more dangerous.  They become addicted to the thrill, obsessed by it.  For Pikelet, there is in surfing “the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.” (p29).

Interestingly, in these opening pages of Bruce’s childhood, we see Loonie much more clearly.  Loonie takes centre stage, “greedy about risk”, whilst Pikelet is slightly more circumspect and unsure of himself.  I enjoyed this slow revealing of our narrator – we get to know him far more gradually than we do Loonie who bursts onto the scene and demands attention.  The most we get on Pikelet is his reminiscences of his very first – and unforgettable – wave (p40):

And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Indeed, Bruce goes onto think that (p50):

More than once since then I’ve wondered whether the life-threatening high-jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to … were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.

We follow Pikelet as he experiences the to-ing and fro-ing of the triangular relationship that he shares with Sando and Loonie.  Both Pikelet and Loonie in turn experience moments of intimacy with Sando.  When Loonie breaks his arm, Pikelet is taken out big-wave hunting by Sando; then Loonie travels to Bali with Sando and Pikelet is left behind, commiserating with Eva as she recovers from yet another knee operation.  These alternating moments of intimacy with their cult-leader are like the ins and outs of the tide, with Pikelet and Loonie increasingly at polar ends as a space opens up between them that cannot be filled.  Pikelet’s obsession needs a new home whilst Sando is away and it finds an unexpected outlet.

I’ve made much of the sound of this story, but Winton engages every sense fully.  Pikelet’s chief memory of high school is the bus ride (p44):

… the smells of vinyl and diesel and toothpaste, corrugated iron shelters out by the highway, rain-soaked farmkids, the funk of wet wool and greasy scalps, the staccato rattle of the perspex emergency window, the silent feuds and the low-gear labouring behind pig trucks, the spidery handwriting of homework done in your lap, and the heartbreaking winter dusk that greeted you as the bus rolled back across the bridge into Sawyer. 

But, quelle horreur, not content with his trademark ‘saurian’, Winton has to tread on my territory, finding a place in his pared-back prose for the dilettante (p217) as we find out more about Eva’s past aerial skiing – she turns out to be every bit the adrenalin junkie that the boys are.  All I can say is: ‘Back off Winton – dilettante is mine!’  (Ah, but the sad truth is I admire him even more now than I did before, damn him!)

‘Breath’ is, of course, a recurring motif, but it is not over-used.  There is the hyper-ventilating Loonie and Pikelet, the holding of breath beneath pummelling waves, the stop-start snoring of Pikelet’s father, the briny breath of the sea, and the unravelling obsession of characters’ relationship with breath and breathing.  We know Bruce is a broken man, but he eventually finds an outlet for his thrill-seeking in his job as a paramedic.  Others are not so fortunate.

Breath has strong autobiographical undertones – Winton nearly drowned as a youth and was always scaring himself surfing big waves.  But it seems its author is anything but broken.  This book ticks all the Winton boxes and therefore seems ripe to be characterised as ‘just another Winton’.  Yes, it is these things, but it somehow seems more than them too.  Breath’s raw energy and pared-back essence is masterful and it deserves all the praise it has garnered to-date.  I’m already looking forward to the next time I pick up a book and see the word ‘saurian’…

* Saurian: of, relating to, or resembling a lizard.

Breath by Tim Winton

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143009580

265 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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