Reading highlights for 2021

Regulars know that my annual Reading Highlights post is my version of a Top Reads post. It’s my way of sharing highlights from my reading year without actually ranking books or nominating a “best” which I just can’t do.

I don’t, as I say each year, set reading goals, but my “rules of thumb” include trying to reduce the TBR pile, increasing my reading of Indigenous authors, and reading some non-anglo literature. This year was another difficult one – of which COVID-19 was only a part. Consequently, once again, I didn’t make great inroads into these … but there were highlights.

Literary highlights

My literary highlights, aka literary events, were, for the same obvious reasons as last year, mostly online – except that I seemed to attend fewer than last year. I don’t think it was that I was Zoomed-out so much as that times just didn’t seem to suit. However, those I attended were excellent:

  • Sydney Writers Festival: Live and Local: Many online festivals – some solely online, and some hybrid – were offered over the year, but I only attended a couple of sessions from the now well-established Sydney Writers Festival streamed series: one featuring Sarah Krasnostein in conversation with Maria Tumarkin, and the other Richard Flanagan with Laura Tingle.
  • F*ck Covid: An online literary affair: This event, organised by the ACT Writers Centre, was a mini-festival. It comprised two sessions, both convened by Nigel Featherstone: one featured established authors (Irma Gold and Mark Brandi) and the other, emerging authors (Shu-Ling Chua and Sneha Lees). It was a most enjoyable and enlightening afternoon.
  • Stella: The Stella Prize is coming up for its 10th year – can you believe it – so they put on a little online celebratory event, Stella … 10 Years. It featured three previous winning or short-listed authors – Carrie Tiffany, Emily Bitto and Claire G. Coleman. It was brief, but I liked that the questions were a little different to the usual ones you get at a book launch.
  • Author interviews/book launches: With COVID-19 abounding, there weren’t many in-person book launches, but we did get to a couple: Irma Gold’s debut novel The breaking, and Omar Musa’s gorgeous book, Killernova.

Reading highlights

What follows here are highlights based on what I love about – or in my – reading.

So, I love …

  • reading First Nations Australian authors: Each year I try to ensure my reading diet includes First Nations authors, and this year I read quite a variety: Jasmine Seymour and Leanne Mulgo Watson’s Cooee mittigar (picture book), Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler’s Black cockatoo (children’s/YA novel), Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (novel), Adam Thompson’s Born into this (short story collection), Alf Taylor’s God, the devil and me and Cindy Solonec’s Debesa (memoirs).
  • it when my reading connects in some way: This year, for example, Sarah Krasnostein’s The believer and Alison Croggon’s Monsters, both referenced the idea of living with uncertainty in a way that made me stop and think, but more interesting was the link between Krasnostein’s nonfiction book on believers and Helen Meany’s novelistic exploration of belief, truth and authenticity in Every day is Gertie Day.
  • reading essays: I read many this year, including three by George Orwell, as well as essay collections, like The best Australian science writing 2020, which is always a stimulating read.
  • Australian novels that address contemporary life and issues: Favourites this year include Irma Gold’s The breaking, Malcolm Knox’s satirical Bluebird, Helen Meany’s above named novel. Interestingly, there were not so many climate change dystopias in my reading this year.
  • reading short stories: I read some engaging collections this year, including one from Mumbai authorJayant Kaikini (No presents please) and some debut Australian collections, Marian Matta’s Life, bound, Margaret Hickey’s Rural dreams and First Nation’s Adam Thompson’s collection.
  • coming across writing that stray from the mould: I didn’t have any talking foetuses, skeletons or fossils, this year, but I did read a second-person book, Tsitisi Dangarembga’s This mournable body, which movingly captured its protagonist’s uncertainty. I also read Bernadine Evaristo’s syntactically different Girl, woman, other which looked off-putting with its almost completely absent punctuation but which, in fact, flowed beautifully. Loved it.
  • reading writers on other writers: I read some excellent commentary by writers on other writers this year: two books from the Writers on Writers series (Jensen’s warm but informative tribute to Kate Jennings and Stan Grant’s honest discussion of Thomas Keneally), and three essays from Belinda Castles’ Reading like an Australian writer.
  • reducing the “dreaded” TBR (which I define as books waiting for more than 12 months): I started off the year with a bang, reading four worth-waiting-for books in the first four months – Angela Savage’s Mother of Pearl, Elizabeth Harrower’s The long prospect, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Trevor Shearston’s Hare’s fur – but I then fell in a heap. The result is that my TBR grew significantly over the year. Wah!
  • rereading loved books: I rarely find the opportunity to reread, but this year, I actually managed a few. There were classics by Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, but the one I want to highlight is Sara Dowse’s West Block. I’d been wanting to re-read it for some time, and was not disappointed as I loved reacquainting myself with its original approach and still-relevant content.

And then there were the little misses!

  • The one that got away: I was astonished to discover, when writing my Reading Group favourites post, that I had missed reviewing our first book of the year, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. I realised why – the meeting was a week after my Dad died – but I can’t believe that I wasn’t even aware that I hadn’t reviewed it. Such is the discombobulation wrought by grief.
  • The one I started but have not (yet) finished: I started reading Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella winner, See what you made me do, on my Kindle, very early in the year. It’s a good read, but I only read it when I’m out and about about, and there’s been less out-and-abouting this year, meaning that at the end of the year, it remains unfinished.

These are just some of 2021’s highlights. I wish I could name them all.

Some stats …

As for actual stats, I don’t read to achieve specific stats, but I do have some reading preferences and like to keep an eye on what I’m doing to keep me honest to myself! So, how did I go?

I like …

  • to read fiction most: 62% of my reading was fiction (short stories and novels) which is less than recent years, albeit only just less than last year’s 63%. Around 75% is my rule of thumb, plucked out of thin air I admit, but, the fact is, there’s some great non-fiction around so, well, I read a bit more of it this year!
  • to give precedence to women: 65% of the works I read this year were by women which is better than last year’s aberrant 80%, and more like what I think is a fair thing! This includes collaborations with male writers and editors.
  • to read non-Australian as well as Australian writers: 27% of this year’s reading was NOT by Australian writers, which is close enough to my goal of around one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian.
  • to read older books: 25% of the works I read were published before 2000, which is more than last year, and closer to the longer-term average of around 30%. I will try to lift this a bit more.
  • to support new releases: 25% of this year’s reads were published in 2021, which is similar to last year. I think this is fair!

Overall, it was a great reading year in terms of quality reads, but not so great in terms of quantity. As in 2020, my personal circumstances, in addition to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, meant I did less self-directed reading than I would have liked and that was a bit frustrating. Here’s hoping for a better 2022, for all of us.

Meanwhile, a huge thanks to all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be both thoughtful and fun people. Our little community is special, to me!

I wish you all an excellent 2022, and thank you once again for hanging in this year.

What were your 2021 reading or literary highlights?

My reading group’s favourites for 2021

In our now annual tradition, my reading group once again voted for our favourites from our 2021 schedule – and as has also become tradition (see last year’s if you like), I’m sharing our reading and findings with you.

First, though, here is what we read in the order we read them (with links on titles to my reviews):

This schedule is very different to last year’s which was was less diverse than usual: nearly all were Australian and we didn’t do a classic. It’s true that our focus always has been Australian – with a special interest in women – but it was never meant to be quite so narrow as it was last year. So, this year … we did a classic; we did just 5 Australian books; and we read three male authors (plus those who had essays in the Best Australian science anthology). The first half of next year will see a continuation of this variety, with not only a classic but a translated book (which has been absent for a couple of years).

The winners …

All twelve of our currently active members voted, and the rules were the same. We had to name our three favourite works, which resulted in 36 votes being cast. No weighting was given to one over another in those three, even where some members did rank their choices. Last year we had a runaway winner – it received twice the number of votes as the two which shared second place. This year though was completely different. The winning book received 8 votes, second 7 votes, third 6 votes and so on down to fifth with 4 votes. Consequently, we have two Highly Commendeds this year, because after 4 votes we dropped to 2, 1 and none.

  1. Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (8 votes)
  2. The crocodile song, by Nardi Simpson (7 votes)
  3. Girl, woman, other, by Bernadine Evaristo (6 votes)

Highly commended: Where the Crawdads sing, by Delia Owens (5); Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (4).

  • Book cover

It was a real tussle this year, and I enjoyed watching the votes come in. Until the last two votes, Nardi Simpson was winning – oh, how I would have loved her to win, particularly after Melissa Lucashenko’s win last year – but she was pipped at the post.

Interestingly, last year all three of the nonfiction titles on our list featured among our favourites, while this year the two nonfiction works didn’t get any votes at all, though they both generated excellent discussions. It’s just that we read such strong fiction. Every book but the two nonfiction books received at least one vote.

Of course, this is not a scientific survey (and it’s a very small survey). Votes were all given equal weight, even where people indicated an order of preference, and not everyone read every book (though most did this year), so different people voted from different “pools”.

Oh, and if you want to know my three picks, they were Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This mournable body, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, woman, other, and Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile. It was a hard decision though, with Shuggie Bain fighting for a place!

Selected comments (accompanying the votes)

Not everyone included comments with their votes, and not all books received comments, but here is a selection of what members said about the top five:

  • Shuggie Bain: Commenters used descriptions like “perceptive”, “powerful”, “brilliant evocative writing”.
  • Song of the crocodile: Comments included “punchy truth-telling”, “loved the ‘fantastic aspects’ … [like] the crocodile totem”, “edgy and important”, “full of beauty and … I understand intergenerational trauma more”.
  • Girl, woman, other: Commenters saw it as a “fabulous evocation of women in complicated relationships”, and “satirical, insightful exploration of diverse women”, while another said “made me feel like I was almost there in London. A great book to read while the borders stopped travel.”
  • Where the crawdads sing”: Our one commenter on it called it “evocative and compelling”.
  • Hamnet: Commenters agreed it was “powerful”: “powerful story of an invisible woman, and the impact of grief” and “powerful … imagined history. Beautiful descriptive writing”, while another said “engaging, well-plotted and historically plausible”

And a bonus!

As in 2019, a good friend (from my library school days over 45 years ago) sent me her reading group’s schedule from this year (links are to my reviews where I’ve read the book too):

  • Kate Grenville, A room made of leaves: novel, Australian author
  • Tony Birch, Ghost River: novel, Australian author (First Nations)
  • Annabel Crabb, The wife drought: nonfiction, Australian author
  • Mark Henshaw, The snow kimono: novel, Australian author
  • Richard Fidler, Ghost Empire: nonficton, Australian author
  • Clive James, The fire of joy…roughly 80 poems: poetry, Australian author
  • Michelle de Kretser, Questions of travel: novel, Australian author
  • Kim Mahood, Craft for a dry lake: nonfiction, Australian author
  • Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains (on my TBR): nonfiction, Kurdish-Iranian author
  • Pip Williams, The dictionary of lost words (on my TBR): fiction, Australian author

My group has read the Henshaw and de Kretser in past years, and we have also read a different book by Kim Mahood (Position doubtful) which we loved.

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you were in a reading group this year. What did your group read and love?

Sarah Krasnostein, The believer (#BookReview)

One of the reasons I love reading fiction is to be introduced to lives and cultures I know nothing about. This is less so in nonfiction, but Sarah Krasnostein’s latest book, The believer, fits the brief. In it she explores questions concerning what people believe and why through six different people (or groups of people), all of which were foreign to me.

The six “beliefs” are eclectic, but can be divided into three categories : personal lives (a death doula and a woman who had been incarcerated for over 30 years for murdering her violent husband); religious lives (through a Creation Museum and some Mennonite families); and the unexplainable (paranormal seekers/ghostbusters and ufologists). These six “cases” all come from either the USA or Australia.

Different readers will be drawn to different ideas in the book, but in my reading group, the most popular were the two personal stories – death doula Annie, and ex-prisoner Lynn. Lynn’s story of abuse at her husband’s hands first and then the justice system’s was heart-rending. Yet Lynn had come to understand that she’d made choices, and had gone on to use her life to make things better for others. Inspiring.

The book has a disjointed three-part structure, with one of each of the three categories explored in “Below”, the remaining three in “Above”, and then some reappearing in the final “Coda: Here” section. Within these sections, the stories are told over several alternating chapters, so no one story is told in one go. One of the questions my reading group discussed was whether this structure helped or hindered our reading. We didn’t resolve this, though the overall consensus seemed to be that the alternating did keep us interested. There was probably method to the placement of the stories, but it wasn’t always clear to us, which might be more to do with the time of year and our concentration levels.

Lightbulb moments

What we did all agree on, however, was that the book had some great lightbulb moments – and for many of us, it’s the lightbulb moments that make a book special or memorable.

One refrain that ran through the book was that life isn’t easy or simple. Mennonite Becky says that “life isn’t just a bed of roses”, and ex-prisoner Lynn understands that “pain is a part of life”. Ufologist Jaimie has a more positive spin, seeing that life “is not just going to work and dying”. There are mysteries out there to explore.

However, for me, the most significant moment occurred in “Before”, in a Paranormal/Vlad chapter. It concerned the need for certainty. Krasnostein references German neurologist, Klaus Conrad, who coined the term apophenia, which essentially means that we look for meaning and coherence, and will go so far as to perceive them in unrelated events and ideas. We will, writes Krasnostein, “choose certainty over accuracy”. “We are compulsive converters of fact into meaning”.

I hope I’m not oversimplifying, but Krasnostein then cites a Science article which talks about the human desire to “combat uncertainty and maintain control” and the importance of this to psychological wellbeing and physical health. You can probably see the lightbulb here: it explained, to me, why some people have found the pandemic harder to handle than others, and why some people can become susceptible to conspiracies. People who feel out of control will look for patterns and answers. For me, living with questions is interesting – and in fact real, because I’m not sure there always are answers – but I feel I better understand now, those who do not feel this way, those who demand certainty, such as “promise there will be no more lockdowns”. I better understand why people might turn to conspiracies when authority doesn’t (indeed, sometimes can’t) provide consistent answers.

Other lightbulb moments were less applicable to my life, but were interesting nonetheless. An example was the Mennonites fear of higher education. It “contains an unacceptable risk of assimilation”, potentially causing tertiary educated members to leave the community (the Mennonite kingdom) and be assimilated into wider society. Higher education threatens their understanding of the world, their faith in the Bible as explaining the world. Krasnostein writes of one Mennonite man who had moved to New York in a mission “to make a difference in people’s lives”:

Anthony’s conflict comes from the fact that the certainties he received instead of education are poor tools for daily living.

There’s that idea of certainties again. Anthony tells Krasnostein that “Theology always scares me because it takes the things that seem simple and makes them complex”. This too returns us to the idea of certainties. Anthony sees life simply. In the Mennonites’ belief in a “loving presence”, they see (create?) “a perfect pattern embroidered into the fabric of reality”. Patterns, again.

What added to the book’s interest was that Sarah Krasnostein was, herself, searching to understand “belief”. She admits to occasionally envying Anthony and his co-believers’ “refusal to accept the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence”. She says at one point, “If I could only ask the right questions I could understand”.

This has not been one of my typical review posts, partly because this is a different sort of book, but mostly because I finished it nearly two weeks ago and am not in the brainspace for doing my usual thing. Forgive me. However, you should be grateful, because this book is jam-packed with stories – some tragic, some poignant, some inspiring and some, I have to admit, infuriating (I’m looking particularly at you Creation Museum) – and it would have been tempting to share too many of them. They weren’t, of course, all equally interesting. And occasionally, they got a bit bogged down in detail to the point that I risked losing the thread. That’s the challenge Krasnostein faced in meeting so many people and wanting to explore all their thoughts and ideas. Overall, it works. Her lyrical prose, and warm, open heart play a big role in that.

Talking about UFO sightings, ufologist Ben tells Krasnostein that “we need to find all these little stories. They build up into a big matrix of stories” which, for him, might locate the “truth” of the events. However, this is also exactly what Krasnostein did in this book and, in doing so, she found, as she writes at the end,

six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable.

My reading group was a little disappointed that in the Coda, Krasnostein didn’t give us a clear summation of the sort you often find in nonfiction works. In fact, though, I think Krasnostein did find something very real, a belief that could help us accept each other’s wildly different shores a little more: it’s that we are “united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that divide us”. That is quite profound, and worth spending some time absorbing.

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Sarah Krasnostein
The believer: Encounters with love, death and faith
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2021
351pp.
ISBN: 9781922330208

Sofie Laguna, Infinite splendours (#BookReview)

Those of you who know the subject matter of Sofie Laguna’s latest novel, Infinite splendours, will not be surprised to hear that it drew a mixed reaction from my reading group, particularly coming on the heels of recent reads like Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review) and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (my review). However, if we all agreed on one thing, it was that Laguna’s writing is splendid.

Some of you though, particularly non-Australians, will not know what it’s about, so let’s get that out of the way first. The back cover blurb starts this way:

Lawrence Loman is a bright, caring, curious boy with a gift for painting. He lives at home with his mother and younger brother, and the future is laid out before him, full of promise. But when he is ten, an experience of betrayal takes it all away, and Lawrence is left to deal with the devastating aftermath.

It’s not a spoiler to say that this betrayal involves sexual abuse.

Infinite splendours, like Laguna’s previous book, The choke (my review), is set in the rural past. In this case, we are in the Grampians, west of Melbourne, and the novel starts in 1953 when Lawrence is 10. As with The choke, my question is, why set the story in the past? And my answer – though I don’t know Laguna’s – is the same: it’s set at a time when awareness of abuse and the resultant trauma were essentially non-existent. This enables Laguna to explore her theme unencumbered.

The novel is told chronologically in three parts. The first ends with the abuse, and the second takes Lawrence through to another crisis in his late twenties, with the third picking him up, a couple of decades later, in 1994. By this time, Lawrence is living alone in the isolated family home. The novel is told first person, so we spend the whole time in Lawrence’s head, seeing only his perspective. It’s intense and introspective, but not unleavened. There are moments of calm and beauty.

One part engaged, another observing. Two selves. (p. 411)

Still, it’s a tough story, as we watch this lovely, sensitive boy, whom we’ve come to love, decline. He stutters. He gives up his interests, including the art in which he’d shown such talent, and he keeps to himself. His body is a source of mental and physical anguish. From the moment of the abuse, he’s a divided person:

I felt myself dividing; there were two selves to choose from. One inside, one outside. (p. 152/153)

There are moments when he may have been helped. Soon after the abuse, his younger brother Paul asks “what did he do to you Lawrence” – but Lawrence won’t confide. At the beginning of part 2, the family’s kind neighbour, Mrs Barry, tells his mother that he reminds her of the “men back from the war”, but of course PTSD was not properly recognised nor treated back then.

After his mother dies when he is 26 years old, his brother leaves home, and a crisis occurs at his workplace. At this point, Lawrence’s self-isolation is complete. He does, however, have points of solace. His beloved mountain Wallis, a fictional mountain in the Grampians which features in the story from the beginning, provides moments of peace, hope and transcendence; a bunker on the property, in which he hides in a game of hide-and-seek at the novel’s opening, is a place he goes to for safety; and his art, to which he returns after leaving his job, provides occupation and self-expression:

This was the world for me; there was Wallis above and the bunker below, and here was I, between them with my tray of colours. (p. 267)

Lawrence also has an art book, Letters from the masters, that his uncle had given him during his “grooming”. This book becomes his “bible” – for art and life – and he returns to it again and again. He studies the paintings, and he ponders the artists’ words. Indeed, the novel’s title comes from Master Millet who wrote “I see far more in the countryside than charm, I see infinite splendours”. And so does Lawrence, particularly in his beloved Wallis. It is while standing on Wallis, before the events unfold, that he has his first intimations of “something else, greater, that was infinite–the earth’s invisible self. Wallis whispered, See this“.

It is in this context that Lawrence’s art becomes his life’s work. He describes one of his landscapes as “like a living thing … a soul contained within an object”, and sees his paintings as his family. He is as settled as he can be. But, change is inevitable, and the time comes when Mrs Barry’s long-empty house across the yard is occupied again. It discombobulates Lawrence:

I painted into the sun, layers of yellow into yellow. Immersion in light. Sun across my knees, sun in the sky, sun on my canvas. Could I not keep going, contained forever within this one emerging world of light? Must I inhabit another?

It seemed I must … Everything changes.

The new occupants are a single-parent family like his own had been, this one, though, with a mother, teen daughter, and, yes, a 10-year-old boy. The tension builds as we readers watch and desperately hope that Lawrence will not repeat history, that he will get his two selves back in sync in the best way.

I said at the beginning that my reading group praised Laguna’s writing. Her descriptions of the landscape are exquisite and her delineation of character, even minor ones, is so very good. Her warmth and empathy are palpable. I also love her ability to change pace and rhythm to evoke different emotions. However, several of us did feel it became repetitive. Further, although I was fully engaged in Lawrence’s story, and was never going to give up on him or the book, there were times that I felt overwhelmed with the multitude of motifs. As well as those I’ve mentioned, like Wallis and the bunker, there’s Robinson Crusoe, Madame Butterfly, a strawman/scarecrow, birds and the bird clock, rocking and a rocking chair, colours, and more. While none of these were gratuitous, they did sometimes become distracting, as I tried to identify whether they were adding anything critical to what I already knew and felt.

As I read this novel, with a frequent sense of foreboding, I was buoyed by my memory of Laguna’s statement that hope is important. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that, here, the hope felt a bit thin, albeit there is a real transcendence in the ending. For that I was truly grateful.

As for my reading group? Well, there’s been a request for books with a lighter touch next year, which is fine by me, as long as they have meat too!

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Sofie Laguna
Infinite splendours
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2020
435pp.
ISBN: 9781760876272

Winner of the 2021 Colin Roderick Award

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (#BookReview)

Book cover

Not unusually, I’m late to this book that was all the talk in 2020 – and, I may not have read it at all if it hadn’t been for my reading group. I’m talking, as you will have guessed from the post title, of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.

As most of you will know, Hamnet’s plot draws from the life of Shakespeare (never named in the novel) and Anne Hathaway, and the death of their son Hamnet at the age of 11. There was an older sister, Susanna, and Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith. O’Farrell explains her interest in her Author’s Note:

Lastly, it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died: his burial is listed but not the cause of his death. The Black Death or ‘pestilence’, as it would have been known in the late sixteenth century, is not mentioned once by Shakespeare, in any of his plays or poetry. I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.

Because this book has been well-covered already online, I’m going to take a slightly different tack with this post, and focus on a couple of questions.

“She herself might tell a different story”

With all books, but particularly with historical fiction, one of my questions is, why did the author choose to write their story. O’Farrell partly answers it in her Author’s note. However, there is also, surely, a feminist reading, because, although the novel is titled Hamnet, it is primarily about his mother Agnes (as Anne is named in Shakespeare’s will). Early in the novel, O’Farrell writes “This is the story, the myth of Agnes’s childhood. She herself might tell a different story”.

The thing is, we don’t know a lot about Agnes Hathaway which makes her ripe for historical fiction. What we do know is that women’s stories were – and too often still are – rarely told, but that that doesn’t mean their lives were unimportant. It means that importance hasn’t been placed on them. Whoever Agnes really was, O’Farrell has created a wonderful, eccentric character, who is perceptive, warm, independently-minded, a little flawed but engaged in the life of her family and community. She is fun to read about.

Besides telling a story about her, though, O’Farrell also presents, through her, a story about grief, and this, for me, was one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Agnes’ thoughts about burying her son, her astonishment that people can complain about their children, her utter discombobulation were so real:

Agnes is not the person she used to be. She is utterly changed. She can recall being someone who felt sure of life and what it would hold for her …

This person is now lost to her for ever. She is someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognise it. She is unmoored, at a loss. … Small things undo her. Nothing is certain any more.

So real …

Hamlet?

Warning: Spoiler of sorts

Given the novel is titled for Hamnet, rather than for its main protagonist, Agnes, it’s worth considering why, and this leads us to the play Hamlet. The novel ends with Agnes attending a performance of her husband’s play, which confirms the significance of this play to the novel. The epigraph to the novel’s second part is a quote from Hamlet (V:ii): “Thou livest;/ . . . draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story”. But, Hamlet could scarcely be seen to be Hamnet’s story, though I did have a little laugh at the point in the novel where Hamnet chooses to die:

They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.

Eleven-year-old Hamnet seems, here, to be far more decisive than his namesake who is known for his prevarication. This, however, is not what we are expected to take away from the novel I’m sure!

So, what else? Well, there’s the grief theme, which Hamlet can be seen to “resolve” in the novel. Agnes, devastated after her son’s death, can’t understand her husband returning to work – and writing comedies:

His company are having a great success with a new comedy. They took it to the Palace and the word was that the Queen was much diverted by it.

There is a silence. Judith looks from her mother, to her sister, to the letter. 

A comedy? her mother asks.

She is even more devastated though to learn that her husband has gone on to write a play using their son’s name – Hamnet and Hamlet being interchangeable – so she goes to London to confront him. What happens is something else. Initially, she feels eviscerated:

How could he thieve this name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? 

But then, as she sees the ghost father and living son, she starts to see something else:

He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.

My reading group discussed the question of the play a little, though we didn’t come to any particular conclusion, which I rather like. However, we did talk about how Shakespeare wrote his darkest, strongest plays, including the four great tragedies, after Hamnet’s death, which suggests that his son’s death had a big impact on him. A member also raised the play’s existential nature, seeing it exploring the fragility of life – “to be or not to be” – and how you go on in the face of bleakness.

Now, I could go on and talk about the style (language, use of present tense, symbolism), the decision not to name Shakespeare, and the dual storyline structure, as I normally would, but I’m sure they’ve been discussed elsewhere, so I’m leaving it this time. There were aspects of the novel that I question, but the truth is that I fell for Agnes and her story.

So, I’m going to leave you with two quotes, one from the husband, one from the wife.

It is so tenuous, so fragile, the life of the playhouses. He often thinks that, more than anything, it is like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat. 

Gardens don’t stand still: they are always in flux. 

These relate to their spheres of activity, but they also say something about life, don’t you think?

Maggie O’Farrell
Hamnet
London: Tinder Press, 2020
310pp.
eISBN: 9781472223814

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (#BookReview)

How to write about a book that has made such a big splash that it has already been extensively reviewed. What more can one say? This is what I’m facing with Douglas Stuart’s debut and Booker Prize-winning novel, Shuggie Bain.

I haven’t, in fact, read much about it, because I prefer to come to books fresh, but I have heard an interview with Stuart, and I can imagine what has been written about his book. I have also discussed it with my reading group. All I can do is just launch in, and write what I would normally write, but I fear it won’t add anything fresh to the discussion. It will, however, record, for me, my thoughts and feelings.

The story

For those of you who haven’t yet read Shuggie Bain, it tells the story of its eponymous protagonist growing up in public housing in 1980s industrial Glasgow. This was the time of Thatcher, a time when mines, shipyards, railyards closed, resulting in significant unemployment and the usual fallout when men can’t work and women and children end up on welfare:

Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity.

This is important, but it is also just the backdrop for the personal story of Shuggie and his mother Agnes. There are other characters, but these two are the book’s core.

The story starts in 1992 with Shuggie, nearly 16, living on his own in a boarding house in Southside Glasgow. He is clearly pitied by the people around him, so the question for us is why is he there alone, how did he get there? We then go back to 1981, where we meet Shuggie’s family, thirty-nine-year-old Agnes, her second husband Shug, and Shuggie’s two older siblings, Catherine and Leek, who were born to Agnes’ first husband. It is not a happy situation. They are all living in a flat with Agnes’ parents, Wullie and Lizzie, and Agnes feels a failure.

When Shug does take his family away, it’s a cruel action, and Agnes and her three children soon find themselves alone, living on welfare payments in the desolate Pithead – a housing scheme which had “the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen”. She knew Shug was “a selfish animal”, but she wasn’t expecting this. From here, their lives are a struggle, though Agnes – now drinking heavily – tries her darnedest to maintain appearances amongst women who reject her and her airs.

The characters

Agnes’ airs! Stuart has an impressive ability to create vivid, real characters. Even the villains of the piece – like Shug – are recognisable as people beyond the “type”, in his case a macho, violent, womaniser, they represent. This is no mean feat. However, it’s Agnes, Shuggie and, to a degree, Leek, who are our focus.

Agnes is a woman with aspirations. She’s resourceful, when sober, and wants more than the life she’s been dealt. But, she is unable to find a way out, largely because, for women of her time and place, it seems that a man is the answer. Her first husband Brendan tries to buy her happiness, but he’s boring. Then the flashy Shug comes along. For all his failings, and they abound, he too tries to buy her happiness, but tires of all her “wanting”.

Unfortunately, one of the things Agnes wants is “to take a good drink”. Her drinking, which was already evident when they lived at her “mammy’s”, becomes a serious problem at Pithead. Life, for her children, becomes insufferable. Catherine skedaddles into an early marriage as soon as she can, while the sensitive, artistic Leek withdraws into himself, leaving the young Shuggie to be the main watcher over his mother. And this is where this novel’s credentials as autofiction come into play, because the evocation of the child-addict parent relationship reads so authentically. We can’t help admiring Agnes’ gallus, while also despairing for her and her children.

So, it’s a heartbreaking story. Not only does Shuggie struggle with his addicted mother – loving her, caring for her in ways that a child should never have to – but he must cope with his own outsiderness that he doesn’t understand. From a very young age his way of talking, dressing and walking, not to mention his disinterest in typical boy things, are ridiculed. He’s called names, beaten up, ostracised, and he doesn’t know why. At 10 years old, aware he’s “no right”, he asks his mother, “What’s wrong with me, Mammy?” If she knows, she doesn’t tell him, but a few years later, he realises that Leek, who had tried to teach him to toughen up, had known all along.

Leek is the support act, figuratively and literally, to Shuggie and his mother. He quietly provides support in the background, even after he eventually leaves home. He’s resentful of the impact on his own ambitions to become an artist, but he sticks around, taking labouring work, because he is needed. In many ways, he’s the hero of the novel, and my heart went out to him as much as to Shuggie. This, I think, says it all:

he looked like a half-shut penknife, a thing that should be sharp and useful, that was instead closed and waiting and rusting.

The writing

It also gives you a flavour of the book’s expressive writing. One of the first things you might notice is that Stuart loves a simile. The book is full of them, but they are so good, like

“The auld man’s face crumpled like a dropped towel.”

and

“The unwelcome presence of a man was like a school bell.”

and so many of Agnes, such this when Shug leaves her

“Agnes, sparkling and fluffy, was lying like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor”.

The book is also well structured, opening in 1992, which immediately tells us that whatever happens Shuggie is going to survive, and ending back in 1992, this time on a note of hope, albeit a tentative one.

Stuart uses vernacular extensively, resulting in much unfamiliar-to-me vocabulary – boak, hauch, gallus, to name a few – but they are understandable from the context, and essential to setting the scene. The novel is not at all hard to read. Indeed it’s beautiful – and easier to understand than some spoken Scottish can be!

Moreover, for all its bleakness, the novel has a good smattering of humour. Here’s Shuggie defending his mother, drunk and over-dressed, marching into the hospital to see her dying father,

Shuggie heard the nurse say to a male attendant that she thought for sure Agnes was a working girl.

“She is not,” said Shuggie, quite proudly. “My mother has never worked a day in her life. She’s far too good-looking for that.” 

What it all means

The novel is, as I’ve said, autobiographical, but that doesn’t mean that Stuart simply sat down and wrote his life. Shuggie Bain reads as a considered piece of fiction that has some things to tell – about dashed dreams, the powerlessness of women in a male-dominated world, poverty, addiction and outsiderness. It’s both political and personal about what happens to lives when the ground beneath is taken away. And yet, for all that, it’s also about love – child-to-mother, brother-to-brother, friend-to-friend – that survives in places you barely expect it to. No-one in my reading group was sorry we scheduled it.

Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain
London: Picador, 2020 (2021 eBook)
355pp.
ISBN: 9781529019308

Nardi Simpson, Song of the crocodile (#BookReview)

Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile is a tight multi-generational saga set in the fictional town of Darnmoor over the last decades of the twentieth century. It tells the story of the people of the Campgrounds, who are ostracised, exploited and abused by the white townspeople. Between the Campgrounds and the town proper, with its ironically named Grace and Hope Streets, is the tip, which was created by knocking down “strangely scratched gums” on the old bora grounds. The road to the tip, and on to the Campgrounds, is Old Black Road. The stage is set …

“trespassers on their own country”

The story is told in three parts which span three generations of the Billymil family – Celie, her daughter Mili, and Mili’s eldest son Paddy. Celie’s part starts, however, with her mother, Margaret. Margaret not only runs the town hospital’s laundry, but also undertakes the major load of nursing the hospital’s First Nations patients. They are housed on “the back verandah” and are mostly ignored by the hospital’s medical staff. In this way, very early in the novel, we get the picture loud and clear about how the town’s Indigenous people are treated. The racism, the omniscient narrator tells us, is “hidden yet glaring. It’s the Darnmoor way”.

But there is a parallel story going on here, too, that of the spirits and ancestors, the “knowledge keepers”, who reside among the stars. They “wait for their loved ones to arrive” but they also introduce an important idea underlying this story – the “connectedness” of “all living or once lived things”. This connection is symbolised in the novel by threads and ropes that join sky and earth through birds and trees to the roots underground. I loved that Simpson shared this, that she trusted her readers to respect a worldview that’s foreign to many of us.

Intrinsic to this connectedness, of course, is the land. Some of the book’s most lyrical writing comes from descriptions of the country – rivers, trees, birds – in which it is set. This country is the freshwater plains of northwest New South Wales, the traditional lands of Simpson’s Yuwaalaraay heritage. In her novel its main feature is the Mangamanga River, “known by some as the wide-bodied, liquid boss of the plains.” It is to this river that Mili and/or members of her family go to refresh their spirits, but the men of Darnmoor want to control it, and protect themselves, by building a levee between the town and the Campgrounds.

Essentially, then, Song of the crocodile is the story of people who are made to feel “trespassers in their own land”. But, it’s also the story of strong, resilient women who forge a community on the Campgrounds. With guts and confidence, Celie turns her mother’s laundry skills into a business called the Blue Shed, providing work for herself and the other women. These women are a joy to read about, but they and their families are barely tolerated by the town, which ensures they know their place. When Mili’s bright young friend Trilpa wins a mathematics prize she is disqualified on trumped-up grounds, and when Mili, herself, applies for permission – permission, would you believe – to continue school past the age of 15, she too is brought down, by Mayor Mick Murphy, in the worst way.

“threads of broken lore”

Needless to say, it’s a difficult story. Too many people, people we’ve come to love, “pass” too young. As the oppression of those left behind builds, creating “hopelessness and grief”, the beast – Garriya, our titular crocodile – starts to stir. Regular hints of his rumbling imbue the novel with a sense of foreboding.

The crocodile is apparently a creator being in Yuwaalaraay country, but his evocation in this novel, as Garriya, is unleashed by the evil that has been visited upon the Campground people, evil that has broken the country’s lore. We feel him coming, and Mili’s alienated son Paddy is the conduit. Desperate to counteract this, spirit songman Jakybird wants to reconnect the “threads of broken lore”. He prepares his spirit “choir” for one last, powerful song, Garriya’s cycle. The climax is shocking, but the ending is cheekily open.

All this sounds grim, but I didn’t find it hopeless. There is delightful warmth and humour in the interactions between the Campground women, and there is humour and hope in the spirit world. Through these, Simpson gives us a complex story of oppression and survival. For all the misery suffered by the Billymils and their community, there is hope in their resilience, in their ongoing connection to country, and in their determination to keep passing on culture. Early in the novel, laundry worker Joyce addresses the parcels for delivery, using drawings that convey “a belonging, a knowledge, a truth of the place on which they walked and worked”:

In most cases the recipients failed to notice the mark, tearing the paper off and crushing it into a ball. It didn’t matter that eventually it was taken to the tip and returned to the earth. What mattered were the boys on the bikes that delivered them, that read the symbols then read the land. The drawings and the washing restored old journeys, countrymen walking on places they knew.

Simpson also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, uses Yuwaalaraay language throughout. She doesn’t directly translate it and there is no glossary. This bothered some of my reading group, while others of us felt the meaning was always clear – or clear enough. Here, for example, is Margaret in Chapter 1:

“Yaama. Dhii ngaya gaagilanha. Who wants a cuppa?” Margaret pushed open the door to the hospital’s back verandah, its hingers squealing as she entered. “How are we all today?”

Song of the crocodile was my reading group’s July book, and it resulted in one of our liveliest discussions this year, as we defended our diverse responses to its ideas, style, characters and tone.

For me it was an absorbing read. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of the insidious racism that First Nations Australians confront and the devastating impact of that on the spirit, but it also shows resilience in the face of that, and it affirms that culture is strong. That has to be a positive thing?

For Lisa’s and other blog reviews, check her ILW Fiction Reading List.

Challenge logo

Nardi Simpson
Song of the crocodile
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2020
401pp.
ISBN: 9780733643743

Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate (#BookReview)

Steven Conte burst on the scene in 2008 when he won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Award with his 2007-published debut novel, The zookeeper’s war. I always intended to read it but somehow it never happened. Jump to 2020, and Conte’s second novel, The Tolstoy Estate, was published. That’s a big gap, but what he’s produced is a well-researched, carefully-crafted, thoroughly absorbing novel.

What intrigues me more than this gap, however, is that both his novels are set during World War 2, and both deal with Germany in the war. The zookeeper’s war is about how the Berlin Zoo’s owner and his Australian wife managed to keep it going through the war. I wonder what it is about war and Germany that attracts Conte? Or, is it just coincidence?

So many paths to follow

The Tolstoy Estate’s plot is not complicated. Most of the story takes place over the six week period – November-December 1941 – during which a German army medical unit established and ran a hospital in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate, near Tula, south of Moscow. Arriving at the estate, the Germans, including doctor Paul Bauer, meet the site’s curator, Katerina Trubetzkaya, who is, not surprisingly, hostile. A relationship develops between Paul and Katerina, against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions both on the war-front and in the unit, as its commanding officer Metz’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

Sounds straightforward enough? Yes, but as one of my reading group members said, the novel has so many paths to follow, so many ideas to think about, that it’s impossible to follow them all. I agree, so, here, I will focus on just a couple of them.

I’ll start, however, with a few comments about the style and structure. The novel is primarily told in third person through the perspective of Paul, so our understanding of what happens, our assessment of the characters and their relationships, come through his thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, he is quickly established as a humane, considered person, so we can trust him, as much as we can trust anyone.

SORT OF SPOILER (though not the ending)

Half-way through the novel we jump to 1967, and a letter from Katerina to Paul. This introduces a second chronology which covers nearly a decade from then. Most of it, until the last chapter, is conveyed though a few letters between the two, interspersed with the main wartime narrative.

Why does Conte do this? This is the question I always ask when an author plays with their narrative structure like this. My usual thought is that the author wants to de-emphasise the plot to encourage us to think about something else, but then the question is, what? I suspect that this is partly the case here, and I’ll talk about the “what” soon. Regardless of the “what”, however, the impact of revealing that Katerina and Paul have survived the war, is to slow us down. It encourages us to focus on the development of their relationship against the backdrop of this cruel war, rather than rushing to turn the pages to see what happens next.

As for the paths, the “whats”, there are many. The Tolstoy Estate is about war of course. The history part of this novel is true, in that Tolstoy’s estate was indeed occupied by the Germans for a military hospital, so there is that. And, there’s the exploration, through our two protagonists, of two unappealing regimes, Nazism and Stalinism. I could write more about the nuances of that, but I won’t. Then, there’s its evocation of how humans behave during war, of how some will and some won’t behave with humanity across the enemy divide. We see this in many war novels, so I won’t dwell on that, either, except to say that I liked Conte’s appreciation of the continuum of humanity’s behaviour from the worst to the best. One of the questions on Steven Conte’s website concerns whether we can forgive what we come to understand. I’ll leave that one with you too!

Love is an excellent motivator (Katerina)

Now, though, I want to turn to two paths that particularly interested me – love and literature. Let’s do love first. The Tolstoy Estate is a love story. Both our protagonists have lost their spouses, meaning both are currently free but have experienced love before. However, they are also, of course, technically, enemies, belonging to opposing regimes, both of which can be brutal to those who cross the line. This tests their love.

Love is not one-dimensional, as Conte knows, so he sets their love against other sorts of love, including master-race proponent Metz’s dutiful but ultimately sexless marriage because of the “physiological costs imposed by sexual congress”; the Soviet Government’s conservative, sexist attitude to romantic relationships, evidenced in its reaction to Katerina’s novel; a German officer’s homosexuality that brings about his demise; the bawdy conversations and behaviour of many soldiers. There’s also Bauer’s brief but pointed reference to the soldiers he treats:

Loves or is loved“, he thought constantly as he amputated, concerned less about the truth of the incantation than its usefulness to keeping him alert.

War and love, by definition, make strange bed-fellows. War heightens emotions of all sorts, and forces those who love to think seriously about it, as Paul and Katerina do. Paul’s bawdy but romantic colleague Molineux says that Paul and Katerina’s bond “transcends race, it transcends law”, and yet both Paul and Katerina are aware that the practicalities of love can spoil even a strong bond – which provides the perfect link to the literature path …

Writers document, great men do (Metz)

Contemplating the value and practice of literature underpins the novel, with Tolstoy’s War and peace, of course, providing the pivot. It links to the love path, because Paul and Katerina frequently consider Tolstoy’s evocation of love in the novel. In a letter to Katerina, Paul writes that War and peace reminded him

that love doesn’t always conquer but that, arguably, it’s better that way – that thwarted love is stronger, more enduring than the domesticated kind.

But, beyond love in Tolstoy, Conte’s characters also think about the value of literature. Again, here is Paul in a letter to Katerina, telling her that War and peace had restored his faith in

doing good in the world; because if, as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, including those who think they’re in charge, it follows that everyone’s actions are potentially significant, that the humblest person can influence events as much as any general, emperor of tsar.

This counteracts Metz’s argument to Katerina early in the novel that

with his rifle our humblest “Landser” shapes the world in a way your Tolstoy never did.

The old “pen is mightier than the sword” discussion I suppose, but oh so engagingly told!

There are also discussions about the craft of writing – some of which reflect wryly on Conte’s interest, such as Katerina’s research focus being narratology.

But I will end with Katerina’s concern about the fading of the novel in the later 20th century:

Everything fades, I suppose, certainly everything made by human hands, and yet I can’t help feeling bereft to witness this diminution of the novel, which for all its inadequacies has trained us to see the world from others’ points of view. To borrow a Stalinist idiom, the novel is a machine, a noisy, violent thing whose product, oddly enough, is often human understanding, perhaps even a kind of love.

Love … and the novel. A good place to end my post on this compelling and intelligent novel.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loved this novel.

Steven Conte
The Tolstoy Estate
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2020
410pp.
ISBN: 9781460758823

Favourite quotes: from Marion Halligan’s Fog Garden

Some time ago, I started a little ad hoc Favourite Quotes series but I haven’t added to it for some time. This post, I actually drafted back then, but never got around to completely it, but I will now!

One of my favourite Australian writers, though I’ve only reviewed one of her recent books on my blog, is Marion Halligan. It’s fitting therefore, that she feature in this little series. The quotes – and there are four – all come from The fog garden, which was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and the Nita Kibble Literary Award (which is for “life writing”). I loved it, and felt it deserved these and more accolades.

I read The fog garden in 2002, a year after it came out, and so, unfortunately, a few years before blogging. It’s an autobiographical novel. In other words, it’s a novel, it’s fiction, but it draws from Halligan’s life. It is about Clare, a novelist, and how she copies with grief after the death of her beloved husband. The novel was triggered or inspired by, or a response to – I’m not sure which here is the most accurate – the death of Halligan’s husband of 35 years.

What I love about it is that as well as being about grief, and the wisdom one learns from the tough experiences of life, it is also about fiction. What I love, in other words, is that it’s about life, it’s about writing, and it is also about reading. It asks us readers to think about how we read. It’s cheeky – and those of you who know how much I love Jane Austen, how much I love Carmel Bird, will know how much I love cheeky writers.

So, here is our first person narrator writing about her character Clare:

She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.  (p. 9)

I mean, really, you’ve got to love that. It’s the real world, but a version of it invented by the author for her character. Just because it’s a recognisable world, and just because the things Clare says and does are “true” doesn’t mean that they are the things author Halligan said, did and believed. They could be but they aren’t necessarily so, and we should not assume they are so, because this is fiction not a memoir. If Halligan had wanted to write a memoir she certainly would have. By writing fiction Halligan was freer to explore her feelings and to play with where they might take her.

Anyhow, here again is our first person narrator writing about writing Clare:

A reader could think that, since Clare is my character, I can make all sorts of things happen to her that I can’t make happen to myself. This is slightly true, but not entirely … only if it is not betraying the truths of her life and character as I have imagined them. (p. 10)

Of course: once you create a character, that character must be true to what you have created.

And here is a little insight into the challenges of writing. I certainly know about writers’ metaphors that have taken me in wrong directions.

That is the trouble with metaphor, it may take you to places you don’t want to go. (p. 279)

And, finally, one of my favourite quotes from all the books I’ve read, and one I’ve shared before.

Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul.

If you haven’t read The fog garden, and ever get a chance, do give it a go. It’s a wise – but also lively – book.

Meanwhile, do any of these quotes speak to you?

Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

Delia Owens’ bestselling debut novel, Where the crawdads sing, is a problematical novel, as my reading group discovered – and yet, I couldn’t help being emotionally engaged. It reminded me a little of a childhood favourite, Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost. My heart went out to Owen’s protagonist, Kya, the maligned, ignored, Marsh Girl, and I loved the writing about the North Carolina marshland. But, intellectually, I had to work to defend my enjoyment, which I’ll aim to share here.

“in the end, that is all you have, the connections”

I’ll start with the obvious, a summary of the plot. The main narrative runs from 1952 to 1970, and is told in two chronologies that eventually meet. The novel tells the story of Kya, who, in 1952, is six when her Mum and, soon after, her siblings leave home. Four years later, when she’s ten, her father also departs, leaving her alone, in their North Carolina marsh shack. She can’t read, has no money, and few skills. But, she’s an intelligent, resourceful little girl, and, with the help of a few kind people, she makes a life – albeit a lonely one – for herself. The novel commences, however, in 1969 with the discovery of the body of a young man, Chase Andrews, who is a local football hero. Was it an accident or was he murdered? The second chronology, then, is a crime story, following the investigation of this death through to the court case. You can probably guess where the two chronologies meet.

Owens manages this structure skilfully, drawing us into Kya’s life, and how and why she develops into the person she is in 1970, while, simultaneously, slowly building suspense by recounting the details of the investigation. The writing is lush and evocative, ensuring that we engage with Kya and her struggle to survive, her increasing loneliness and her desperation to connect with others. We see her turn to nature and wildlife to learn about life, as well as to provide herself with sustenance and give her a minimal income (by selling fish and mussels, for example).

This is nature writing at its best, with stunning descriptions of the marsh, and the birds, fish and insects that inhabit it, but it is also eco-fiction, with occasional allusions to development. Tate, a young man who befriends Kya (and provides her with a much-needed connection) tells her:

They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.”

The marsh is Kya’s family; it is what, in the absence of family, forms her:

She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.

It is hard, as a reader, not to care about Kya. Will she find the connections she so badly wants – “Being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed” – and will they stick?

“it’s usually the trap that gets foxed”

However, it’s easy to pick holes in the book. Kya’s survival (given her youth) and her development into an educated young woman (given she only spent one day at school) can stretch credulity. Many of the characters feel stereotyped, from the good “colored” people, who put themselves out to help Kya, to the prejudiced townspeople, who reject and exclude her (as they do all marsh people). “Barkley Cove”, writes Owens, “served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried”. And, if you don’t like your heartstrings being obviously pulled, you may not engage with Kya at all.

All this makes it problematical, because it’s one of those books that whether you love or hate depends largely on what sort of reader you are, what you like to read, and/or how you read this particular book. There are many ways to read Where the crawdads sing – a crime story, a romance, a coming-of-age story, historical fiction, a modern fairy-story or allegory, even, to name a few. Some of these ways demand more realism than others, and expose holes which are irrelevant to other ways. It is one of these other ways that appeals to me.

This way is to read it more like a fairy story or allegory, as a story about the triumph of the maligned, a comeuppance for the underdog. If you read it this way, the stereotyping of the minor characters, and the improbability of Kya’s survival and achievements, serve to emphasise the challenges faced by the underdog. It is hard to explain what I mean without giving away the ending, but I’ll try.

Throughout the novel, we are not only reminded of the prejudice and mistreatment of Kya (as representative of the marsh people) but are also aware of the ostracism of “colored people” as they were called then. Kya turns to nature to learn about life. Early in the novel, when the “colored” Jumpin’ warns her about Social Services looking for her, friend Tate tells her to “hide way out where the crawdads sing”:

Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

One of Kya’s main challenges is to work out the differences between what she observes in nature and in human behaviour:

“In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.”

These two quotes – among others – hint at the novel’s underlying idea, which is that it’s not only “critters” who are “wild”, that human beings will be ruthless too. Exploring this ruthlessness in its natural and human manifestations, and how Kya navigates it, is a major theme of this book – and explains why Owens has written it the way she has. The resolution is deeply satisfying (albeit I didn’t love the device used to achieve it).

Where the crawdads sing is a thoughtful read for those who feel passionate about the maligned of this world. It is also a glorious lovesong to the marshland. I’m glad my reading group scheduled it.

Delia Owens
Where the crawdads sing
London: Corsair, 2018
379pp.
ISBN: 9781472154637 (Kindle ed.)