I really don’t like doing memes – except for the Six Degrees of Separation to which I’ve become addicted. But when I came across this Book Buying Habits one via Lisa (ANZLitLovers) and Karen (Booker Talk), I decided it would be a good opportunity to explain myself, so here goes …
1. Where do you buy your books?
I prefer independent bookshops, of which we have a few in my city, including Muse (a wonderful bookshop-cum-cafe-cum-literary event venue), Paperchain and the National Library of Australia bookshop. When I travel, I like to visit independent bookshops. These shops can usually be guaranteed to have the sorts of books I like to read, and staff who love to talk books.
I do some online purchasing, but less so than I did a few years ago, and I spread myself around a bit. Fishpond, Booktopia, Bookworld, Book Depository and AbeBooks (particularly for out-of-print books) are the ones I’ve used.
2. Do you ever pre-order books and if so do you do this in store or online?
No. I have enough to read without seeking out books before they come out.
3. On average, how many books do you buy a month?
I used to buy four or more a month (including books as gifts), but these days I have reduced that rate because I am trying to catch up on reading books I have for review and books on my TBR. So, over the last year or so I’d say I only buy a couple a month. If it’s an Australian book I want to read, I’ll buy it in print, and if it’s non-Australian I prefer e-version. This is my little attempt at decluttering – or at reducing the clutter!
4. Do you use your local library?
Rarely these days. I’m a librarian by training, and I love libraries, but I also love to own the books I read – and, yes, you can yell at me, I also write in my books (in pencil). This is the main reason why I prefer to buy books – not borrow them from friends or libraries.
5. If so – how many books can you/do you borrow at a time?
I only borrow if it’s the only way I can locate a book I really want to read, which means I usually only borrow one at a time.
6. What is your opinion on library books?
Libraries are essential to a free, democratic society. I would fight for their existence. I have no problems reading library books. I just have problems keeping my pencil away from them, so … see q. 4 above!
7. How do you feel about charity shop/second-hand books?
I regularly donate to charity bookshops which, here in my city, means to Lifeline. I occasionally offer books to secondhand bookshops for sale but I don’t really find it worthwhile. They never take all I offer, and the money I’m offered (not that I’m complaining, they have to make a living) makes it not worth the effort. So, I’ve decided recently that when I declutter books, I’m donating them.
I will buy secondhand books if the book I want is out-of-print and I can find it in one of these shops. I do enjoy browsing Australiana sections of those secondhand shops which specialise in older literature. I tend to avoid those focusing on contemporary genre/bestseller books.
8. Do you keep your read and TBR pile together/on the same book shelf or not?
On the same bookshelf. Shelf? Not shelves? Hmm, no, they are separated, and they occupy their own bookcases, with Australian TBR books separated from non-Australian. My review copies are in a shelf of their own, with a little notebook in which I list them when they come in, and tick them off when I read them.
9. Do you plan to read all the books that you own?
What I plan and what I expect are two different things …
10. What do you do with books that you own and that you feel you’ll never read/felt you didn’t enjoy?
If they’re fiction and I’ve read them, I keep them, as they are part of my reading life and history. One day, though, I will weed them, starting with the non-Australian books. Oh dear, it rather sounds like I’m a nationalist. I’m not really, but it’s all part of my desire to support our small but wonderful industry here.
However, if I haven’t read them, and I really don’t think I’ll get to them, I have just recently started to move them on – by offering them to people who I think will enjoy them or by donating them. See under q. 7 above!
11. Have you ever donated books?
Yes, see under q. 7 above, again!
12. Have you ever been on a book buying ban?
No. Sometimes I go-slow, which I am doing now for the reasons I’ve given under q. 3. I see no reason for having a ban. If I want to read a book – if I need to read a book, say for my reading group – I’ll buy it. I am lucky enough, I know, to be able to afford this. Reading, after all, is my prime hobby so of course I’m going to support that hobby in whichever way best suits me at the time – and this means reading books I have, or buying a book I “need”. Some people like going to the gym or love skiing. Do we ever ask them about going on a gym- or skiing-ban?
13. Do you feel that you buy too many books?
Yes – and no. Yes, because my eyes are at times too big for my stomach (hmm, that’s a cliché that would horrify George Orwell) and because I have bought books in the past that I realise now I will not manage to read. No, because I’m not sorry about supporting authors, publishers and booksellers.
I’ve done two Monday Musings posts inspired by Tony (from Tony’s Book World) – one on novels with real place names in their titles and one with fictional. To complete the trifecta, I thought why not look at Australian novels with foreign place names in their titles.
This turned out to be rather fun to do. Many Australian writers have set books overseas – more perhaps than I had superficially expected. They include, to name just a few that sprang to mind, Sara Dowse’s Schemetime (Los Angeles), Kate Grenville’s Dreamhouse (Tuscany and Milan, with the film adaptation set in Vietnam), Eva Hornung’s Dog boy (Moscow), Hannah Kent’s Burial rites (Iceland), Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest (Leipzig), Christina Stead’s For love alone (Sydney and London), Tim Winton’s The riders (Ireland, mostly), and Marcus Zusak’s The book thief (Germany). The list goes on and on in fact. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that I found it relatively easy to find books titled with foreign place names, but I’ve limited myself to six.
I’ve read four of the books I list here – and, as with the first post in this series, I’m listing them alphabetically by the name of the place.
When talking place names, it would be hard to get bigger than a country, so here I am starting the list with a very well-known country in the title of a book by a well-known Australian author, Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America (my review). Not only is America in the title, but America is very definitely the book’s subject because what Carey explores here is that country’s grand experiment with democracy. The epigraph is: “Can it be believed that the democracy which had overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists? (Alexis de Tocqueville)”.
My second place-name is another country, Barbados in the West Indies. It’s probably not the first place that would spring to mind as one an Australian author would write about, but Roslyn Russell’s Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (my review) does, in fact, make perfect sense. Russell is a museum professional who has spent a goodly amount of time working in Barbados. She is also a Jane Austen fan, and if you know your Jane Austen well, you’ll know that there are references to slavery in Mansfield Park. It was, as they say, a match made in heaven and Russell found herself irresistibly drawn to writing a piece of historical fiction drawing on these two enthusiasms of hers.
From countries we move to cities, and a good example is Gail Jones’ recent, well-reviewed A guide to Berlin. Its title is that of a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. It is, as you’d expect – though you know I’m sure that this expectation of titles can’t always be relied on – set in Berlin. It’s about six international travellers, from various countries and all Nabokov lovers, who meet in empty apartments in Berlin where they share stories. It’s still on my to-read list.
Of all the places authors might choose to write about, that most romantic of cities, Paris, would surely have to be up there, and sure enough I found one quickly, one, in fact, that I’ve read, Anita Heiss’ Paris dreaming (my review). It’s a delightful piece of chick-lit (or, as Heiss calls it, choc-lit) and is about a young museum professional who goes to Paris to mount an exhibition of indigenous Australian art. It’s an aspirational book as well as a fun read. Heiss fans will also be aware that she has written another book titled with a foreign place-name, Manhattan dreaming.
Shanghai is one of the most exotic places on this list, depending of course on what each of us means by exotic! Hong Kong-born Australian writer Brian Castro’s Shanghai dancing is, I believe, set mostly there. Castro, in an Author Note, describes it as follows: ”Shanghai Dancing is a fictional autobiography. Told from an Australian perspective and loosely based on my family’s life in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau from the 1930s to the 1960s.”
Remember what I said under Berlin regarding expectations of titles? Well, Andrew O’Connor’s Vogel Prize-winning Tuvalu, which I read a couple of years before blogging, is a perfect example. It is, in fact, set primarily in Japan, not in Tuvalu which is a Polynesian island nation in the Pacific. Indeed, as I recollect, the characters, never go to Tuvalu. It is, instead, the dream-place or goal, the place where you imagine your life will be best and which therefore acts as a motivator to keep you going. I can’t think of a better place or concept on which to end this list of novels titled with places other than one’s own!
So now, once again, over to you. Can you add to my list of Aussie books with foreign places in their titles, or tell us about books from your country’s writers titled with places from elsewhere?
I was reminded of George Orwell’s rules for writing this weekend while reading an article about the German architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983). In her article, “New guides to Bath: Society and scene in Northanger Abbey”, Judy Stove-Wilson wrote that
Pevsner noted the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables. He regarded this as symptomatic of ‘understatement, the aversion against fuss, the distrust of rhetoric’ (Pevsner, The Englishness of English art, 1956, p. 13).
The reason I was reading this article, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, is because my local Jane Austen group is currently discussing Northanger Abbey. Pevsner wrote in 1968 an oft-quoted article on Austen, “The architectural setting of Jane Austen’s novels”. He, keenly interested in architecture, was critical of Austen’s minimal descriptions of buildings in her novels, though he was impressed with her knowledge of and use of Bath in her novels – and of course much of Northanger Abbey is set in Bath.
But, I’m digressing. My inspiration for this post is his comment on “the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables”. It made me chuckle given the German language’s predilection for multisyllabic words It also reminded me of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English language” and his 6 rules:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
No. 2, of course, is the one I was remembering.
However, on returning to the essay to check Orwell’s actual rules, I realised that the whole essay is worth reading again, because in our world of “alternative facts” Orwell’s words on the relationship between politics and language are as relevant today as when he wrote them 70 years ago. He writes that, paradoxically, our language
becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
This is reversible, he believes, and reversing it is critical because good writing enables clear thinking, and the ability “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”. I should clarify, if you don’t already know, that his target is factual, and particularly “political writing”, not “the literary use of language” by which, presumably, he means creative or fictional writing.
Later in the essay he makes very clear why he is writing it, and you’ll quickly see why I’m sharing it now:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called “pacification”. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers”. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called “elimination of unreliable elements”.
Hmm … I bet everyone reading this can think of their own contemporary examples. Please share them if you like!
I won’t write more on the essay, as my main aim was simply to share its continuing relevance. I’ll just leave you with a sentence from his last paragraph:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
That George Orwell. He really was something.
“Politics and the English language” 1946
This is how it changes us. This is how we are altered.
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Stella Prize short-listed memoir, The hate race, is one powerful book. I’ve been reading about racism since my teens during the Civil Rights years, and have read many moving novels and memoirs. Clarke’s book holds its own in this company.
The book chronicles Clarke’s life from early childhood through to the end of high school, but she bookends this chronological story with a prologue and epilogue which are set later, during her son’s first year of school. This approach to structuring her story is effective, because it enables her to reflect on what’s changed a generation later. And the answer is, not much, which is such an indictment on Australian society.
Before saying more, though, I need to back-pedal a bit, and make sure you know who Clarke is – besides being the writer of a well-reviewed collection of short stories, Foreign soil. She’s the Australian-born daughter of West Indian-born parents who migrated to Australia from England in 1976. As a young girl she was mystified by people asking her where she was from, and confounded when these same questioners became angry when she responded, honestly, Australia. This is, I know, a common story, but is not, I think, well-documented in our literature. However, as Clarke would say, what’s a story for, if not to tell how it went.
And that’s what she does, tells us how it went – and went, and went. The bulk of the story is, as I’ve said, told chronologically but Clarke hangs each chapter, each step in her chronology, around a specific topic, such as her involvement in sport or debating, or that transition period between primary school and high school. She captures beautifully the trajectory of thirteen years of schooling from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. Although everyone’s experience is different, much of what she describes is universal: the first day of school, the yearning for a specific toy (like a Cabbage Patch Kid), parties, first love, getting braces, and so on. What isn’t universal, though, is her experience of being a child of colour.
This is how …
Reading her story is gut-wrenching. She faces racism – direct and indirect, intended and unintended – from her first day of pre-school to the end of high school. One high school class-mate, who ranks the girls in the class (as if that’s an acceptable thing to do anyhow), doesn’t rank her at all “because animals didn’t count. Greg Adams said that would be bestiality”. She’s called every name you could possibly think of – and more you probably couldn’t. She’s spat at and threatened. Luckily, she has friends too – otherwise it’s hard to imagine how she could have survived.
The disappointing thing is the inept handling by the schools, because it’s clear that for all the work ostensibly being done in schools to promote tolerance and harmony, only some of it is getting through*. There’s only so much schools can do, of course, given students’ main role models are their parents, but the least teachers can do is take the racist behaviour seriously and respond in a meaningful and supportive way. This, however, is not always the case: “He’s trying to wind you up. It’s just a little bit of nonsense. Don’t give him the satisfaction, Maxine”, says one high school principal, for example. That’s not good enough. Writing about her early primary school years, Clarke says this:
I knew before I started big school that, for me, the playground would always be a battlefield: a world divided into allies and enemies. At five and a half, racism had already changed me.
After a while, you start to breathe it. Another kid’s parents stare over at our family on the first day of school with that look on their faces. You make a mental note to stay away from that kid … You tell a teacher someone is calling you names. Blackie. Monkey girl. Golliwog. The teacher stares at you, exasperated, as if to say: Do you really expect me to do something about it? The next time you have a grievance, you look for a different teacher. This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.
Towards the end of the book, her boyfriend asks her to come to his place to swim in his family’s pool. She’s uncertain:
I had no reason to believe Marcus’ family would have an issue with the two of us, based on what I knew of them, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself through the stress of finding out.
This is how we edit our lives.
How we brace against the blows.
The book isn’t unmitigated misery. Clarke mixes up the tone, sometimes using humour to make her point – it never hurts, after all, to see the absurd side of things – but the book is a memoir, not an autobiography. This means that it is not about the whole life but a part of it, and in Clarke’s case the part that she wants to share, to expose, is her experience of racism while growing up. Her goal was not vindictive. She writes in her Acknowledgements that she loves Australia, but she wanted to show “the extreme toll that casual, overt and institutionalised racism can take: the way it erodes us all”. That, she certainly does.
There are things about the book that I could quibble about, but they are petty in the face of its overall power. I don’t like to describe books as “important” or to say that everyone must read them, but for a readable and devastating understanding of how racism, in all its guises, impacts on a personal, rather than a theoretical or historical level, The hate race is essential. It’s a story that needs, as indeed Clarke aimed, to be “written into Australian letters”. It deserves the accolades it has received.
Kim (Reading Matters) also admired this book.
Maxine Beneba Clarke
The hate race
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2016
* This is the 1980s and 1990s I know, but I use present tense here about schools because it’s pretty clear that not a lot has changed.
Last week, inspired by Tony (from Tony’s Book World)’s post, I posted on novels with places in their titles. I limited my titles then to “real” places, but in my research I came across many books with fictional places in their titles, so, well, you know what I decided to do with that!
There are good reasons for making up a place. For a start, readers can’t complain about inaccuracies – about a street being in the wrong place, for example. Moreover, it gives writers the opportunity to create place names that mean something thereby contributing to the work’s overall meaning.
Last week, I listed my small selection of books by the name of the place, but here I’ll list under the author’s name. I’ve read four of my five chosen books, but have only blogged two, unfortunately.
Drylands (1999, my review) is set in
a God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere whose population (two hundred and seventy-four) was tucked for leisure either in the bar of the Legless Lizard or in front of television screens, videos, Internet adult movies or PlayStation games for the kiddies.
Such an evocative fictional town name suits Astley’s purposes for her dystopian novel about desiccating lives. It’s one of those books I haven’t forgotten, and would willingly read again.
It’s raining in Mango (1987) is set in a completely different environment to Drylands – as the title itself makes clear – but all that rain doesn’t make it much cheerier! It’s set in the fictional town of Mango, in the tropical rainforest area of northern Queensland where Astley set several novels, including her first, Girl with a monkey. The novel follows the Laffey family through four generations, from the 1860s to the 1980s. It also tells the story of an indigenous family whose path crosses the Laffeys. Astley chronicles lawlessness, violence and dispossession, and yet, as I recollect from my long-ago reading, it has its warm, comic moments too. One I should read again.
The conversations at Curlow Creek (1996) is not, I think, one of Malouf’s best known or most popular books, but I really liked it. It’s set in 1827, and concerns the conversations between two Irishmen, a prisoner, who is to hang in the morning, and the man guarding him. It has that mesmeric, reflective quality that I love in many of Malouf’s novels. As I was researching the book to see if I could find why Malouf chose this place name, I came across an interview with Malouf in which he says, “I’m aware of the number of times I really want to use the novel to stop time, to slow things up. You can slow up the narrative so that a second is something that can be explored maybe over pages. I like that play between movement and stillness in the novel.” I still haven’t found the origin of the name – perhaps it’s just intended to be an Irish-sounding name that was fairly typical in colonial Australia – but this statement tells me a lot about what drives his writing.
Tiburon (1935), which won the S.H Prior Memorial Prize, was Tennant’s first novel. It is set in the fictional Australian country town of Tiburon during the Depression, and centres on the poor and unemployed. I’ve read a couple of Tennant’s novels, but not this one. She’s a great teller of stories about the lives of “ordinary” people, often in extraordinary times, like the Depression (here) and the War (Tell morning this, which I have read.) According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the man she ended up marrying obtained a job in the country, so Tennant walked hundreds of kilometres from Sydney to see him. “On the journey,” ADB says, “she witnessed the hardship and suffering of the rural unemployed. It was the first of the many arduous, punishing walking tours Tennant undertook in the early 1930s that would form the background to her rural Depression novel Tiburon.” Apparently, she based Tiburon on Canowindra, and the residents were none too happy!
Tennant, commenting on rumours of unhappiness in the town, suggested they could raise money for the following headstone for her:
KYLIE TENNANT. Once a student of Brighton College.
Unwisely wrote Tiburon and was speared by the natives of a town that does not exist.
Clearly, if you are going to make up a place, you should make it up good and proper!
Happy Valley (1939, my review) is set in a fictional town called, yes, Happy Valley, in the Snowy Mountains-Monaro region of New South Wales where Patrick White had worked as a jackeroo for a year. The town’s name, as you’ve probably guessed, is ironic, because White’s people are rarely happy. Life, as I wrote in my review, tends to be, for his people, disappointing at best, sterile, depressing and/or meaningless at worst. In other words, like Thea Astley’s Drylands, White’s titling is pointed.
So now, over to you … do you have any favourite (or, even, not so favourite) novels titled with fictional places?
I decided to read Ellen N La Motte’s story “Alone” from recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings because it was a war story, but as I read LOA’s notes I became more and more intrigued. I hadn’t heard of La Motte (1873-1961) before, but she was an American nurse. Two years before the US formally joined the First World War in 1917, she offered to work at the American Hospital of Paris.
She wasn’t pleased by what she saw. Rather than a serious “warzone” she found a bunch of “alleged do-gooders crowding out the recuperating soldiers”. In an essay written at the time, “An American Nurse in Paris,” she described the workers, as follows:
nearly all are dressed in the becoming white gowns of the French Red Cross and a few are pearled and jeweled, rouged and scented till they are quite adorable. . . . This system floods the institution with a mass of unskilled labor, some of which is useful, much superfluous, and some a positive menace to the patients themselves.
Not surprisingly, La Motte decided to move on, and worked for a year in a military hospital in Rousbrugge outside Dunkirk. She was little prepared, LOA writes, for the horror she witnessed. She herself described it as “beyond and outside and apart from the accumulated experience of a lifetime.”
While working at the hospital, she wrote of her experiences, and upon her return in 1916 published a dozen or so sketches in The backwash of war: The human wreckage of the battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse. However, it was withdrawn in 1918 by her publisher, due to government pressure. It was too “unpalatable”, and wasn’t published again until 1934!
“Alone” is one of the sketches in the book. It tells the story of injured soldier, Rochard, who has gas gangrene. It’s a straightforward story – story-wise, anyhow. Rochard is brought into the hospital within six hours of being injured, but his wounds are inoperable and all know he will die. All they can do is offer pain relief and nursing care to keep him as comfortable as possible. What impressed me about the piece was La Motte’s insight, her humanity, and her ability to write, all of which turn this sad story into something more powerful.
La Motte describes the doctors in the hospital as comprising, primarily, young recent graduates from medical schools, and old doctors who had graduated long ago. She writes that
all those young men who did not know much, and all those old men who had never known much, and had forgotten most of that, were up here at this field hospital, learning. … there were not enough good doctors to go round, so in order to care for the wounded at all, it was necessary to furbish up the immature and the senile.
Oh dear. She describes the initial treatment given to Rochard in rather gruesome detail – which I won’t share here – and then describes his dying. He is given morphia, which “gives a little relief, at times, from the pain of life, but it is only death that brings absolute relief”. She never mentions euthanasia but, from her description of Rochard’s horrendous pain, you sense she’d support it. His death is a long and painful one. She writes, after one trying night:
So when the day nurse came on in the morning, there was Rochard strong after a night of agony, strong after many picqures of strychnia, which kept his heart beating and his lungs breathing, strong after many picqures of morphia which did not relieve his pain. Thus the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.
As Rochard nears death, the screams of pain reduce and he becomes quiet. She writes that:
he had been decorated with the Médaille Militaire, conferred upon him, in extremis, by the General of the region. Upon one side of the medal, which was pinned to the wall at the head of the bed, were the words: Valeur et Discipline. Discipline had triumphed. He was very good and quiet now, very obedient and disciplined, and no longer disturbed the ward with his moanings.
Bitter, eh. The piece moves to its inevitable end – Rochard’s death – but the language La Motte uses to describe it and the way she controls the narrative to deliver a punch at the end, is impressive. This woman could have been a writer – well I suppose she was! – but her passion lay elsewhere, nursing and public health.
After the war La Motte, who wrote many books and articles on her nursing experiences, travelled in Asia and saw the devastation caused by opium addiction. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where her papers are stored, she became an authority on opium trafficking, and reported to the League of Nations. She was awarded the Lin Tse Hsu Memorial Medal by the Chinese government in 1930 and received the Order of Merit from the Japanese Red Cross.
But, she did more, too, so I’m going to conclude with the final paragraph from the American National Biography Online:
Ellen La Motte’s professional life was devoted to causes she analyzed through the lens of public health advocacy. Her efforts on behalf of the antituberculosis campaign, woman suffrage, and the anti-opium crusade emerged from a firm belief that promoting ways to improve the health of the larger community could create a more equal and just society for all.
Someone well worth knowing about … I’m glad I decided to read this LOA story.
Note: The backwash of war is available in entirety at Project Gutenberg.
Ellen L. La Motte
First published: The backwash of war: The human wreckage of the Battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse (1916)
Available: Online at the Library of America
I love a cheeky writer, and Carmel Bird must be the doyenne of cheeky writers, so it goes without saying, really, that I thoroughly enjoyed her latest novel Family Skeleton. The cheekiness starts with the epigraph, which, as she is wont to do, is a quote from her fictional character Carillo Mean. As Bird has said in an interview, “he always has something interesting to say”. But that’s just the start of the cheekiness. The story is narrated by “the skeleton in the wardrobe”. Now, I know many readers don’t like what they see as cute or contrived narratorial devices – like girls in heaven or dead babies – but please don’t let that put you off here, because in the hands of a skilled writer such a device can lift a story to a whole new level.
So, when I tell you that the novel’s framing idea is an obsession with family history, you might start to understand where our narrator comes in – except that the story is not really about the skeleton, whose identity is never divulged, nor is it about family history. What it’s about, really, is family secrets and betrayal, and the tipping point. It’s about the recently bereaved and well-to-do Margaret O’Day, whose family, through her husband, has been involved in the funeral business for generations. Such a setting is, of course, ripe for black comedy and that’s what we get in this novel. But, back to Margaret. Her husband Eddie, “a philistine” according to our skeleton, was also a philanderer and died in the arms of his mistress. Margaret had been betrayed – more than once, in fact – but she knew this, and even accepted this last mistress, and her children with Eddie, at the funeral.
From this set up, the story progresses, mostly chronologically but with a couple of significant time-shifts along the way. It is mainly told by our omniscient skeleton, but Margaret starts a journal, which she calls – hmm, note this – “The Book of Revelation”. Her entries in it form some of the book’s chapters. This title, “The Book of Revelation”, is another of Bird’s jokes, for the novel is about things revealed and not revealed – particularly the latter, because as the story progresses Margaret discovers an even bigger betrayal than her husband’s, and she is desperate to hide it from visiting O’Day family historian Doria Fogelsong.
The novel, then, as I said, is about secrets and betrayals. For the “virtuous” Margaret, who has put up with much throughout her marriage and who has become very good at “concealing her true feelings from people”, this lately discovered betrayal is the last straw. It takes all her resources to keep going. The family history motif compounds the tension. Will the story come out? Will Margaret be able to keep Doria (“with her iPhone on her left, iPad on her right”) from finding it out.
There’s satire here, surely, on the current obsession with family history. Our skeleton tells us
I happen to know that one of the little violinists was the son of Eddie O’Day and a gorgeous Hungarian dress-designer. Evan didn’t realise that, not that it makes any difference to anything, although it is a nice detail for a family tree. Doria missed out there.
So cheeky, these little jibes dropped in. Bird also skewers fashions in family history – such as how it is now a positive thing to uncover a convict or an Indigenous ancestor – while also exposing its underbelly, that is, the pain discovery can cause. The obvious question, of course, is whether it is better to know the truth or not.
However, it’s not only family history which catches Bird’s eye, but the pretensions and self-absorption of contemporary middle-class life, from designer clothes to electronic devices, from shallow parties to theme park cemeteries. It’s all here, providing background to the main fare.
But there’s more to the novel too, because it is also about writing and reading fiction, a storytelling masterclass in a way. The skeleton does more than narrate. S/he engages with the reader, reminding us of things we’ve already read, making sure we are keeping up with any plot hints or twists. Oh, how I loved this. I felt Bird was right there, having fun, playing games with us, while at the same time teaching us about how writers write and, more significantly, how we should read. Early on, for example, our skeleton presents us with a future auction advertisement for Margaret’s house, Bellevue, and says:
I realise that the eye of the reader can easily slide carelessly across such elements of the text. However, I suggest you take your time and study this document carefully.
The joke, though, is on us because at this stage in the story we have no idea what “secrets” are contained within. (At least, that’s my reading of what Bird is doing.) At another point, after telling us that “nothing bad ever happened at Bellevue these days”, the skeleton teases us with, “I trust you are alert enough to hear a faint bell ringing”.
Bird also plays with the archetypes of popular fiction – the betrayed wife, the philandering husband, and “the archetypal stranger who rides into town … the harbinger of fate” – but she gently subverts our expectations. The betrayal that most disturbs Margaret is not her husband’s, and it’s not Doria, the stranger, who brings the news that so distresses Margaret, albeit, given Margaret’s discovery, Doria can certainly ramp up the pain.
And then there’s the writing, with its gorgeous descriptions, pert sentences, delicious irony, entertaining word-plays and its smart, cheeky tone which leaves you in no doubt about who or what is being targeted but is good-humoured rather than bitter. Here is Margaret preparing to have Doria for lunch:
When Margaret asked for just a plain omelette, Lillian [her housekeeper] understood that the guest was someone who gave Margaret no joy, and who was to be more controlled than entertained. It was control by omelette. A sliver here, a sliver there, and a quiet soft squashing with the tongue against the palate. Desultory conversation, meaningless smiles. Plain omelette.
What more can I say? Family skeleton delights on so many levels. It is in fact quite a shocking story, but one told with a spoonful of sugar that has just the right amount of spice. I can’t help thinking that Bird chuckled and chuckled as she wrote it. I certainly did reading it.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the novel.