Thursday, November 8, 2012


‘Faith was a power that arose from inside you, I thought, and doubt was exogenous, a speck in your eye. A black mote from the sad world of adults.’

Ava Bigtree, alligator-wrestler-in-training, will need plenty of faith, or something, to survive the sudden changes at Swamplandia!, her lifelong home. Swamplandia! is under threat from a new and unexpected competitor, a theme park called the World of Darkness. When Ava’s mother, a champion alligator-wrestler and the star attraction of Swamplandia! dies suddenly of cancer, her husband and three children are left to face both the dwindling number of paying visitors, and the inconceivable force of their grief.

Somehow, thirteen-year-old Ava begins to disappear from view as far as her remaining family members are concerned. Her older brother Kiwi, determinedly intellectual in a naïve kind of way, sets off for the mainland (Florida) to save their home. Ava’s sister, the middle child Osceola, develops a fascination for the spirit world and falls is in love with one ghost after another. Their father, the Chief, also heads for the mainland, ostensibly for some obscure business purpose, leaving the two girls alone.

Swamplandia! is an extension of a short story published in Karen Russell’s earlier, and highly recommended, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. The stories in that collection focus largely on children and young people, with whom Russell evidently has a particular affinity. Reading Russell’s writing is a bit like looking into a mirror, and finding a reflection that is recognisable, but somehow larger and more colourful than the reality. She has a unique ability for surprising metaphor and description.

Ava Bigtree is a likeable heroine, a strong-minded, intelligent person who loves her family fiercely. It is easy to feel protective of her, as she struggles with all the unprecedented upheaval at Swamplandia!, and works to keep the members of her family safe and together in the same place. Unfortunately, neither Ava nor the reader can control what happens in this novel; Russell is skilled at exposing all the chinks in our emotional armour, and testing them painfully. This novel departs from likelihood at many junctures, but remains unflinchingly honest.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears

The Chemistry of Tears is a novel about two people with unquiet minds, in very quiet places. It is 2010, and just as the oil from the Gulf of Mexico environmental disaster is beginning to spread across the surface of the water, Catherine Gehrig, horologist, is faced with a personal catastrophe of a comparable scale. She has just learned that her lover of 13 years is dead.

Her supervisor at the Swinburne Museum, a pretty self-satisfied and manipulative individual, sets her the task of restoring an unusual object. (The nature of the object itself ought to be discovered through a reading of the book, and there are no spoilers here.) Among the items provided to her in a series of tea chests is a collection of notebooks, giving Gehrig a jealously guarded entry into the life of Henry Brandling.

In 1854, Brandling left England in search of something so mesmerising that it would distract his consumptive son from his illness. His travels took him to a small town in Germany, and the workshop of the mysterious Herr Sumper. Brandling is forced to submit to Sumper’s strange tales of his past adventures, and begins to doubt that his work is even being done.

Peter Carey unspools these two stories in tandem. We come slowly closer to the marvellous thing at the end of both trajectories, from two different directions. As Brandling stumbles and bumbles his way through life in his German village, impatiently awaiting the completion of the project, Gehrig catalogues and pieces together this very work of art, in all its extraordinary complexity. And as the novel progresses, it is apparent that Catherine and Henry have more in common than it initially appeared. Both are subject to the whim of others, and frustrated by this intrusion. Both are hindered to varying degrees by those ostensibly sent to assist them. Both are wracked with anguish and longing for a precious person who they cannot be with.

‘There was no one I dared turn to. I thought, I will work. It was what I had always done in crisis. It is what clocks were good for, their intricacy, their peculiar puzzles.’

This is another absorbing novel from Peter Carey. Of the two stories being told, it is Catherine Gehrig’s which is the more compelling and believable. This is achieved in part by her unusual position, in which she is both character and critic: she can sit in judgement on the decisions made by Henry Brandling more than 150 years earlier. Her particular professional knowledge also enables her to interpret signals and clues missed by Brandling.

Carey examines with utmost care the power of an object, especially one so elaborate and fantastic as this, to distract, to calm, and to resolve. The Chemistry of Tears is a reminder of the great value of a thing made with the hands, the heart and the mind, over a period of time. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Do yourself a favour and read Cloud Atlas. The plot really cannot be summarised here, first because it consists of a sequence of fragments of different stories, but mainly because figuring out the ways in which these stories are connected to each other is too delightful to be denied. This is not a mere novel. It is an exquisite, intricate drawing like the ones produced with those Spirograph toys, and an engrossing study in the nature of time and the continuity of the human race.

'Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow?'

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wild Abandon

In Wild Abandon, Joe Dunthorne has created a community that every reader will start to feel a part of. In response to the recession of the early 1990s, married couple Freya and Don, along with a small group of friends, decided to form a self-sustaining, secular settlement in the Welsh countryside. Now, 30 years later, Blaen-y-llyn and its remaining inhabitants are being tested in new ways. The only other original residents are Janet, a successful jewellery designer who returns to the community for six months each year, and Patrick, who passes his time suspecting everyone of trying to get rid of him, loving Janet silently, and trying to get high.

Freya and Don’s two children, Kate and Albert, are confronting reality in their own way. Kate is finishing high school, and is compelled to leave the community in order to study for her final exams. Being a teenager at Blaen-y-llyn isn’t what you might expect: Kate is studious, responsible and emotionally mature. Delightfully, she finds the whole idea of taking drugs offensively boring, because that’s the kind of thing one’s parents do. Because Albert refuses to wash while Kate is away, he steadily acquires a layer of grime and filth. Albert takes little notice of this, because he is fully aware that the world is about to end. And when it does, he will be prepared. He and a chosen few will be ready. Meanwhile, Freya is becoming increasingly convinced that she no longer wants to be married to Don.

The title of the novel suggests the kind of hippy, unfocused, free-loving mayhem that the characters from outside the community are determined to believe in. Sure, there are only two mobile phones, which are never turned on, there is an Ad-Guard to prevent the children from seeing television advertisements, and there is even a geodesic dome. But in truth, this is a collective of people trying with varying levels of enthusiasm to stick to the values which led them to found it in the first place. For the most part, their weeks are carefully structured, with everyone required to do their fair share of work and look after everyone else. The title seems to hint at the manner in which the community is now starting to be abandoned.

‘Albert was hopping from foot to foot now. The phone was his domain, his contact with the outside, and he defended it fiercely. He could often be seen sprinting across the yard in his socks, skidding into the hallway, grabbing the newel post to alter his trajectory – skating the tiles – then plucking the handset from its cradle, hardly out of breath as he delivered one of his lines: Good morning, Blaen-y-llyn, if you speak to one of us, you speak to us all. Or sometimes just breathing heavily down the line.’

This is a warm, funny novel, and most of all, it is an inclusive novel to be enjoyed. Not many of us will ever live in precisely this type of community, but all readers of Wild Abandon will be able to picture themselves joining in its activities.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hard Times (For These Times)

Surely there can be no author with a more extensive catalogue of eccentric characters than Charles Dickens? One day, someone with plenty of time and a commensurate amount of motivation, will probably figure out exactly how many (fictional) train carriages these individuals would fill, if they could all be gathered together and made to sit in the carriages. This is pretty unlikely given how noisy, fussy and unaccommodating many of them are. The characters of Hard Times are no exception. As usual, Dickens lines them up and introduces them thoroughly before they have a chance to do very much. His knack for presenting us with a precise summary of each new person as soon as they appear means that we always have a good sense of what we are in for.

Meet Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby of Coketown (and note the suggestive names). Gradgrind, the headmaster of the local school, has lived his life according to his personal philosophy: Facts are the only things you will ever need to get by in life. He has raised his children, particularly the elder two Louisa and Tom, according to this principle. Mr Bounderby, Coketown’s Banker and major manufacturer, will not stop prattling on about his miserable childhood in the gutter and subsequent rise therefrom. Gradgrind’s approach to education and parenting suit Bounderby perfectly; mainly because he has designs on young Louisa.

Louisa — who has been taught never to wonder, fancy or imagine anything at all — when offered Bounderby’s hand in marriage has no words in which to express the reservations of her heart. Hard Times is one answer to the question: why read? Why concern yourself with anything other than what is immediately in front of you, scientifically provable and susceptible to measurement? According to Dickens, it is because the alternative does not bear thinking about, especially in difficult economic times. Naturally, however, you will need to read the book to fully appreciate what that alternative may be.

This is one of his more straightforward novels, much shorter than some of the others, and a very enjoyable one, even if the dialogue is a little overdone in parts. ‘In conthequenth of my being before the public, and going about tho much, you thee, there mutht be a number of dogth acquainted with me, Thquire, that I don’t know!’ It is an excellent novel with which to celebrate the upcoming bicentenary of its author's birth, 7 February 2012.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Marriage Plot

Eugenides’ readers have come to expect certain things. First, evidence of his preoccupation with the lives of young people. In this novel he may have shifted his focus from the troubled teenagers of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex to university age adults, but he has really only added a few years. Nobody could blame him for this; young people have such vivid experiences! Second, his intricate workmanship. Each novel seems familiar and authentic because the characters are imagined into their existence completely whole. They speak with voices that ring out in the mind. Third, there is his distinctive generosity towards those characters. He likes people, and we can tell. Yes, these individuals are flawed, and convincingly so, but he shows us how and why we should forgive them. Finally, his latest novel is as unpredictable as the first two. Every time we feel that we know where we are headed, we are proven wrong. Reading a Eugenides novel is like walking down your very own stairs with a large box in your arms. You’re sure you know how many steps there are, and then you reach confidently for the ground only to plunge through the air, in search of the step you didn’t anticipate.

Taking university life in the 1980s as his starting point, and that of English student Madeleine Hanna in particular, Eugenides indulges book lovers from the first page. Madeleine, resistant to the literary theories of the time, persists in her study of Victorian novels, generally flouting such things as deconstruction and the demise of the author. As soon as we are introduced to rivals Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, the question seems to be: which one of them will marry Madeleine? Mitchell, the intelligent and serious religious studies student favoured by Madeleine’s parents, or Leonard, a brilliant and popular scientist, who is burdened with worries he can’t share?

With graduation behind them, this trio is forced to confront a recession and the lack of structure imposed by life without regular classes. ‘While he wrote, he felt, for the first time, as though he weren’t in school anymore. He wasn’t answering questions to get a grade on a test. He was trying to diagnose the predicament he felt himself to be in. And not just his predicament, either, but that of everyone he knew.’ The novel circles around to give us glimpses from their three different perspectives. In doing so, it makes demands of each of them, setting traps to test their strength. What must a person be prepared to sacrifice for a relationship? Can we ever live up to our ideals, whether religious or romantic? What may we legitimately expect from a person we love? While the scholars are busy ‘revising’ the novels of the 19th century, Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell unknowingly begin to act out their own version of the marriage plot.

The Marriage Plot is a sophisticated exploration of the stories we tell ourselves (such as ‘I’m destined to marry Madeleine’; or ‘I’m in love, he loves me, everything will turn out fine’; or ‘This is all my parents’ fault’) and directly acknowledges our complicated relationship with the books we read. Books are comforting, inspiring and informative. But they can be misleading and are necessarily incomplete, especially when it comes to love. In case you are at all inclined to dismiss this particular book with suspicions about it being ‘too highbrow’, consider that while there are certainly plenty of references to Barthes and Derrida, the children’s book Madeline also features. Just wait and see! You will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Les Misérables

If you start soon, you will be able to finish this novel (it’s 1194 pages long in the Vintage Classics edition) in time for the release of Tom Hooper’s forthcoming film adaptation. This new film itself is said to be an adaptation of the musical, so if you want the whole picture, you really do need to read the novel.

What will quickly become apparent is that this book is not content with being a mere narrative. It insists on expanding upwards and outwards, away from the plot, taking in a vast emotional and geographical landscape, and a few decades of French history. It challenges the notion that historical context is not part of the story. It resists the idea that there is such a thing as an inconsequential detail.

The temptation is there to skip portions of the text, and this is made easier by the very clear separations between the plot and each of the discursions, which are neatly contained in their own chapters. These tangential commentaries on diverse topics from the Battle of Waterloo to the history of Parisian sewers are, however, vital to Victor Hugo’s purpose in telling this story. They must be read. Unfortunately they have a habit of appearing just as the plot is becoming interesting.

‘The book that the reader has before his eyes at this moment, is, from one end to the other, as a whole and in its every detail, whatever its irregularities, its exceptions or shortcomings, a step from bad to good, from the unjust to the just, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to awareness, from rottenness to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point: matter; end point: soul.’

The plot itself is terrific, if not a bit implausible. The relatively small group of central characters are drawn to each other like dancers of a madrigal, ceaselessly stepping towards, circling around and away from one another. Coincidences are freakishly common, but a skerrick of believability is restored by ensuring that in some instances, the dancers fail to recognise one another. In such a long novel, the regular reappearance of familiar names cannot fail to reassure.

Ultimately, it is clear that a realistic plot was not the goal. At the heart of the novel is concern for those who are frequently ignored — the people we might today call the 99% — including orphans, the elderly, the destitute and criminals. Les Misérables is a frank plea for more care for these members of society, for greater access to education, and for the equitable distribution of wealth. The central contest between escaped convict Jean Valjean (who represents justice) and Inspector Javert (the embodiment of the law) demonstrated for Hugo the important difference between the application of the laws of men, and the laws of God.

‘Of course, they seemed utterly depraved, utterly corrupt, utterly vile, utterly odious even, but they are rare, those who have fallen without being damaged on the way down; besides, there is a point where the unfortunate and the ignominious mingle and fuse, poor bastards, in a single word, a deadly word, outcasts, les misérables, and whose fault is that? And then again, shouldn’t charity be greater, the deeper the fall into the darkness?’

Under Melbourne Skies

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.