Thea Astley, An item from the late news (#BookReview)

Book coverSet in the satirically named town of Allbut, whose nearest large town is the equally satirically named Mainchance, Thea Astley’s An item from the late news is framed by the story of a man who comes to the town, fearful of “the atom bomb”, and wanting to live a quiet – sheltered, you might say – life.

Wafer is this man, and the story is narrated, from the perspective of ten years after the events, by townswoman Gabby. Introducing the story, she tells us that she was living at the coast when he arrived for “his sad little attempt at reclusion”, and goes on to say that

I reckon now, sprawled on my day-bed guilt, that … the town wasn’t really different from anyplace else except that its final actions become more redly horrible as I think about them.

This tells us much, that the story is not going to end well, that Gabby is implicated, and that Allbut is “anyplace”. It focuses our mind less on what’s going to happen, and more on how and why things go badly. This being Astley, the answers lie in small-mindedness, cowardice, brutality – and, in this story in particular, in greed. It is greed which provides the impetus for the denouement, but along the way, we see sexism, racism, and machismo running amok, all of which lay the groundwork for the behaviour that brings about the end.

Allbut is “anyplace”, one of hundreds of towns set in “landscape skinned to the bone”. It’s a “nothing” town, or, alternatively and ironically, “a clean and decent town”, “a caring town”. It has “all” the obvious things – people, farms, cemetery, pub, war memorial, police – “but” what you really need, kindness and generosity. Into this town comes the outsider, Wafer. Hippie-like in dress and behaviour, “he smiles at children, blacks, old gummy folk. He doesn’t count his change.” Indeed, Gabby tells us, he is “too friendly with the blacks. The town hates that.” He is too kind, too generous, but is also afraid. Having seen his father blown up before his eyes during the war, and having followed the Hiroshima attack, he has come to Allbut to build a bomb shelter.

Narrator Gabby, although of the town, is also an outsider, also a misfit. She has never quite fit with normal “squatting class” expectations, couldn’t be “the daughter of their Sunday social page dreams”. An artist by trade, she’d painted “the very heart of boredom”, albeit unrecognised by her buyers. After failed relationships, institutionalisation for a mental breakdown, and overseas travel, she returns to town, still bored and looking for love. She falls for Wafer, and starts painting again – well, drawing, anyhow. But, she tells us – ominously – “this whole horrible canvas will have the detail of a Brueghel and the alarm of Goya.”

Allbut is peopled with several characters: loner Moon with “the trigger-quick temper”, Sergeant Cropper, Councillor Brim, Smiler Colley and his teen daughter Emmeline, Headmaster Rider and son Timothy, the regularly mentioned but rarely seen (of course) Indigenous woman Rosie Wonga, and Doss (with “blonde hair set in jazz age waves”) and her man Stobo. Karen Lamb, in her Astley biography Inventing the weather, writes about Astley’s use of music: “A character’s mind might be full of classical music – to show an evolved intellect – but jazz was better to bring out a character’s exuberance and refusal to follow convention”. Doss, then, is one of the positive characters in the book, though she has little power to affect the outcome.

An item from the late news is a slim volume – at 200 pages in my edition – but through irony, foreshadowing, repetition, and evocative menace-laden language, Astley builds her story painstakingly but irrevocably to its conclusion. Sexual violence – first against shop dummies, then an assault on Emmeline – sets the stage, but it’s Wafer’s gemstone which captures the attention of the men in the town. It is then that the brutality really starts to build, and we know, even if we’d hoped before, that this really will not end well.

The novel is Astley’s 8th of 15, that is, it’s slap bang in the middle of her fictional oeuvre. By the time she wrote it, her broader themes were well established. These include concern about the Americanisation of Australian culture, the negative influence of television, rabid commercialisation and development (“Sunshine of the vanished sand … the high-blood pressure of the high rise”), poverty and social inequity, not to mention racism and sexism. She fears for the “nothingness” that she sees characterising people’s lives; she rails against what Wafer calls “this blinkered world”; and she exposes her ultimate truth that, as Wafer again says, “we all fail … we fail each other”.

You could also say, though, that there is a cliche at the heart of this story, that of the woman scorned, because although it’s the men of the town who are the most brutal, it’s Gabby who fails her big moment. However, she is such a complex creation that this is not how the novel reads. Instead, by having the damaged Gabby operating as both observer and actor in the events, Astley subtly subverts that trope – and encourages us to be generous.

It was in her review of An item from the late news, that Helen Garner described Astley’s writing as “heavy-handed, layered-on, inorganic, self-conscious, hectic and distracting” and wrote that “this kind of writing drives me beserk”. If you know the writing styles of these two writers, this will make sense, but I suspect Garner, who had a long relationship with Astley, came to appreciate her work. Certainly, the language could be seen as “heavy-handed, layered-on”, but I love its evocativeness and power, the richness of her allusions, the succinct yet poetic way in which Astley can convey an idea. Even the title conveys a punch. It’s thrilling to read.

An item from the late news is quintessential Astley. It offers an unflinching look into the heart of small-minded Australia, and finds much to disturb us. And that is the value of reading literature like this.

Read for ANZLL Thea Astley Week; Lisa also reviewed the book for her week.

Challenge logoThea Astley
An item from the late news
Ringwood: Viking, 1999 (Orig. ed. 1982)
ISBN: 978014069488

Shokoofeh Azar, The enlightenment of the greengage tree (#BookReview)

Book coverI bought Shokoofeh Azar’s novel The enlightenment of the greengage tree when it was longlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, for which it was also shortlisted. However, it was its shortlisting this year for the International Booker Prize that prompted me to finally take it off the TBR pile.

Born in Iran, artist and writer Azar was still a child when the Islamic Revolution started in 1979. She grew up there, and, as an adult, obtained work as an independent journalist. However, after being imprisoned three times, she fled Iran by boat, ending up on Australia’s Christmas Island, and was eventually accepted as a political refugee by the Australian government. She has written a children’s book and two short story collections, but The enlightenment of the Greengage tree is her first novel. Like many first novels, it feels autobiographical, though given the narrator is a ghost and Azar is clearly still with us, it is not exactly autobiography!

The story chronicles the lives, experiences, and reactions of a family caught up in the chaos and brutality of post-revolutionary Iran. This family comprises father Hushang, mother Roza, son Sohrab, daughter Beeta, and another daughter, the above-mentioned ghost narrator, Bahar. Following the 1979 Revolution, they flee Tehran for the remote village of Razan, which was untouched for years by the revolution, until it came there too during the Executions of 1988.

While the story is roughly linear, it does slide around a bit, so you need to keep your wits about you. It starts in Razan with Roza’s attainment of enlightenment “at exactly 2:35pm. on August 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree”, the same moment at which her son Sohrab is executed amongst hundreds of other political prisoners in Tehran. This, of course, is told to us by thirteen-year-old Bahar who, we don’t discover until chapter 5, had died in a fire set in her father’s library in 1979 by Revolutionary Guards.

Now, the book is described on its back cover as magical realist, but this is term I have been uncomfortable about ever since hearing Alexis Wright question it. I fear that with our rationalist Western minds, the description “magical” can carry a hint of condescension. Alexis Wright said that “Some people call the book magic realism but really in a way it’s an Aboriginal realism which carries all sorts of things.” Toni Morrison has spoken similarly. Azar, on the other hand, embraces the term, describing it like this: “People of old or ancient cultures sometimes seek the metaphysical solution for realistic problems”. That makes sense. I also rather like this description in Wikipedia by Mexican critic Luis Leal. He says “to me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world” or, to be more specific, toward what happens to them. I guess it’s really a matter of a rose by any other name, and that the issue is less the term, than how we readers understand or approach what we read?

So, when I tell you that Roza finds enlightenment at the very top of a greengage tree, that the ghosts of 5000 executed people confront the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in his bedroom, that Beeta becomes a mermaid and joins the merpeople to escape the sorrows of the world, that forest jinns place curses, or, even, that the novel is narrated by a ghost, I am accepting that this is how the characters experience their world.

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is, then, the story of people in extremis. The background is the repressive regime, but the book’s ambit is much bigger. It’s about life and death, love and loss, and how those play out in brutal, politically-charged times. While “most people”, says Hushang, “wanted to get used to everything”, his family heads to the jungle town of Razan, where they think, foolishly as it turns out, they will be safe. When the revolution does reach them, the people are unprepared, and are left

wondering how they’d ended up in a game whose rules they hadn’t written. The game of aggressor and victim. A game in which it didn’t take long for the victims to become the aggressors; become victim aggressors… it wasn’t long before they forgot their myths and dreams, their history and balance …

With Sohrab soon arrested, our family soldiers on, each reacting to the brutality they confront in their very different, beautifully differentiated, ways.

Roza leaves home early in the novel because:

… she wanted to lose herself.  She didn’t want to sit in her newly rebuilt house and look at the freshly-painted walls, and the new furniture and carpet, and imagine how Sohrab was killed or how I suffered as I burned.  She didn’t want to think about the future and what other calamities might befall Beeta and Hushang.  She wanted to run away from herself, from her fate.  She didn’t want to be wherever she was.

Beeta, on the other hand, who had stayed and struggled, eventually transforms into an aquatic creature, “so as to experience and live life with a freedom that had been impossible as a human”. Meanwhile, Hushang, who also stayed, reads. He had “a thirst for reading”, a desire to be “connected with the world’s thinkers”, to distance himself “from the contemporary world of intellectual midgets that had overrun his country.” Eventually though, his reading brings him to “contemporary Iranian history; the place where all his questions turned to bottomless chasms”.

History is, in fact, a constant thread in the novel, one that is pored over from every angle – including an attempt by the people of Razan to discard it altogether. Azar shows, graphically, the damage done by those regimes which try to quash people’s past, their heritage.

Late in the novel, there’s a confrontation between Hushang and his brother Khosro who had taken a mystical path. Hushang is furious, arguing that “this mysticism game” had done nothing against the various atrocities and traumas, and criticising “smart people” like Khosro for hiding “in the safety of temples instead of doing something to fight the corruption and injustice.” Khosro, though, believes, probably realistically, that nothing can be done to avert the ongoing destruction of Iranian culture. He argues that “all I can do is not become tainted by something I don’t believe in.”

The enlightenment of the greengage tree is a wonderful read if you like books which pose these sorts of fundamental questions about how to live in difficult times. It could be a grim read, given the brutality contained within, but it’s not. It’s tragic, of course, but it has a sort of unsentimental, slightly melancholic tone that doesn’t weigh you down. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, Beeta tells Bahar that “imagination is at the heart of reality”. A perfect description of what Azar has done in this book.

In the front matter, Azar expresses gratitude to the Australian people for accepting her “into this safe and democratic country” where she can “have the freedom to write” such a book. We, however, should be grateful, in return, to have such a creator in our midst.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

Challenge logoShokoofeh Azar
The enlightenment of the greengage tree
Translated by Adrien Kijek*
Melbourne: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780987381309

* Translator’s name is a pseudonym; the European edition was published with translator as anonymous.

Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross (#BookReview)

Book coverUnlike many, I think, I have not read Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels which, I understand are very different to her only Australian-set novel, Trooper to the Southern Cross, which, in fact, she published under the male pseudonym of Leslie Parker. It has been on my TBR for some time, so I’m grateful that Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week provided the impetus for me to finally pull it off the shelves and read it.

That said, Angela Thirkell is a bit of a ring-in. Wikipedia describes her as an Australian and English novelist, but really, she, who lived from 1890 to 1961, only lived in Australia from 1920 to 1929. All her novels were published after her return to England, so, although she did some journalistic writing in Australia, it’s a bit of a stretch to call her an “Australian” novelist. Nonetheless, I’d argue that this book, which has an Australian protagonistwas and was published in 1934, is worthy of Bill’s week, and the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Before I get on with the book, I should tell you that Thirkell’s father was William Morris’ good friend and biographer, and her maternal grandfather was Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. She had Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin as cousins, JM Barrie as godfather, and Beatrix Potter as a neighbour. She moved, then, in interesting circles.

Hilarious and affectionate satire

GoodReads writes that in Trooper to the Southern Cross, Thirkell “assumes the voice of an Australian army officer and relates an amusing, rough-and-tumble sea story about an eventful, post-World War I journey on a troop-carrying vessel deservedly labeled a ‘hell-ship.’ Thirkell’s keen ear for dialogue, and her skillful use of her own first-hand experience of a voyage on a similarly rumbustious vessel, combine to create an amusing and spirited yarn.” This is a fair description, but Virago’s back cover does a better job, describing it as “an hilarious and affectionate satire on the manners and mores of Australia”, “satire” being the operative word.

I make this point because, as Bill will be interested to know, HM Green, in his History of Australian literature, believed, says Virago, this book was written by a male, and described it as an example of “unconscious humour” rather than as satire. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly if you don’t know the full story. At this point, of course, I had to check out Trove, where I found two contemporary reviews. One, from Sydney’s The Sun (18 November 1934), is scathing, describing it as “without literary merit, with just a touch of sardonic humor and a good deal of unrestrained nastiness”. The main complaint is that the book “portrays the Australian soldier as something between a savage and a simpleton”.

The other review, from The Sydney Morning Herald (29 September 1934), is a little more positive. It has its criticism, though, saying that the “language and outlook” of its army doctor narrator “is that of the common soldier and rather difficult to reconcile with his rank and the assumption that he is a graduate in medicine of an Australian university. Our Medical Faculties hardly turn out their diamonds quite as rough as this unpolished specimen.” However, this reviewer finds the book funny, and concludes:

The voyage was full of incident, and the episodes, tragic, thrilling, or amusing, lose none of their interest in the free manner of telling. From the major’s mouth came artless revelations of opinions on all subjects that are reminiscent of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” though the artlessness has not the subtlety of the art of Anita Loos. Diggers will chuckle over this book.

Hmmm … not The Sun’s diggers, perhaps.

“a reserved kind of chap”

Trooper to the Southern Cross is based on Thirkell’s own trip to Australia in 1920 on the requisitioned German troopship SS Friedrichsruh which, like the novel’s fictional Rudolstadt, had been ingeniously sabotaged by the Germans. For example, the toilets flushed boiling water and salt water flowed from freshwater taps. Not surprisingly this added to the havoc on a ship that was carrying officers with their wives and families, “ordinary” diggers, and prisoner diggers who soon had it over the soldiers guarding them. As Thirkell tells it in her novel, there was much violence on board and at the only two stops made en route, Port Said and Colombo. All this is told in the voice of Major Tom Bowen, who is modelled on Thirkell’s husband, albeit her husband wasn’t a doctor or a major. Bowen’s wife, Celia, however, is not based on herself, says Tony Gould in Virago’s introduction, but Mrs Jerry, the Colonel’s wife, is.

The novel is interesting to read for a number of reasons, one being simply for its history, its being, according to its publisher, the first book to deal with “the repatriation of Australian troops after the war.” A very particular repatriation one would hope, but a story of such nonetheless. Mostly, though, it’s interesting for the voice of its narrator. He is quite something, and I can imagine different readers responding very differently to him. He, like George Thirkell, served in the war from the Gallipoli Campaign right through to Armistice. He’s reasonably educated, having done medicine in Sydney, but he uses Australian vernacular and his cultural tastes are popular. Virago’s Gould notes that Thirkell “became extremely well versed in Australian literature and culture and uses it to comic effect” in the book. Here, for example, is Bowen soon after meeting “the wonderfully pretty little thing” who was to become his wife:

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain that they were way out beyond everything. I asked her if she’d read ‘On Our Selection’, because that gives you some idea of the back-blocks. But she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We  of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’, so I knew she wasn’t literary.

You can imagine the female Thirkell enjoying writing this male character – and she does it so well. He makes you cringe – with his frequently smug patronising manner, sexism, racism, and general all round chauvinism – and yet you can’t help liking him too. He has nous dealing with men, particularly the diggers for whom he has a clear-eyed affection; he is resourceful; and he shows tenderness to others in need, regardless of who they are. He’s even open to having his mind changed, such as when the Roman Catholic padre helps him out:

To think of an R.C. showing me what Christianity really was. It gave quite a shock to a lot of my ideas.

As a document of 1920s Australian manners and culture, told with a lightly satiric eye, Trooper to the Southern Cross is a surprisingly entertaining read.

Challenge logoAngela Thirkell
Trooper to the Southern Cross
London: Virago, 1985 (Orig. pub. 1934)
(Virago Modern Classic No. 171)
ISBN: 0860685926

Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, The drums go bang! (#BookReview)

Book coverVolume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, covers the period of her life up to when she lands in Australia to marry D’Arcy Niland. Not being sure, perhaps, that there’d be a sequel, Park concludes with:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember laughter.

That autobiography was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1947 of The harp in the south.

The first thing that struck me was its point of view: it slips astonishingly between third person and first person plural, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. And then the penny dropped, its collaborative nature. When they are talking about one of them, Tiger (Ruth’s nickname) or Evans (D’Arcy’s), third person is used, but when they are talking about them together, first person plural is used. Here is an example about their delayed honeymoon:

We didn’t mind the delay. Tiger was crazy to see Sydney, and besides she wasn’t too keen on going away to the Blue Mountains with a strange man. While Evans was away at the Railway she went around the city on her own …

Once you work out what’s going on, it works very well. However, to understand this particular paragraph, and the “strange man” comment you’ll need to read their story for yourself, as I want to move on to other things. Suffice it to say that this comment, while containing an element of truth, given the way their relationship developed, is also an example of their light, self-deprecating humour. As Park said in her autobiography, “most of all I like to remember laughter”.

The drums go bang is a short and often funny book, but it manages to cover a lot, including their struggles to find accommodation in 1940s Sydney when accommodation was scarce, their decision to go freelance and the resultant struggle to survive, their work in the outback, two pregnancies, their lives in Surry Hills and other Sydney suburbs, and their relationships with a wonderful cast of characters. The aspects which interested me most were of course Surry Hills, because it inspired The harp in the south, the writing life, and the writing itself, which provides such an insight into their skills.

Although they tell it with such humour, Park and Niland are very clear about how difficult the freelance life is. For most of the five years covered by the book they live a hand-to-mouth existence, experiencing poverty at close hand. However, there’s also good advice here for would-be writers. For example, early in the book, Tiger expresses frustration at Evans’s belief that a good story will sell regardless, but even this is told with humour:

He was convinced that if the story were good it must sell. He bailed up an amiable Salvation Army major and tried to persuade him that “The Other Side of Love” was just what was needed for the War Cry. He submitted “The Menace of Money” to the Business Man’s Monthly, and a sentimental animal story to the house magazine at the Abattoirs.

They share their Minor Carta, their manifesto for writers who wish to make a living writing. Its eight articles include some hard learnt truths, such as that you have to “write anything and everything”, you cannot afford to be “snobbish” about your art, and you can’t let rejection slips get you down. They talk about the variability of payment systems for freelance work, unscrupulous writing schools, and the importance of marketing, of needing to “shape it to fit”. They write articles, songs, short stories, radio plays, children’s radio, comedy sketches, and more – anything that might bring in a cheque (and they do it sharing one old typewriter.)

I’d love to share more about their lives, and particularly the characters in it, like Evans’ brother Young Gus, the generous freelance publisher Mr Virtue, and colourful relations like Aunt Nibblestones and Uncle Looshus, but I want to get onto something that is most relevant to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week, their time in Surry Hills and how it inspired The harp in the south. Initially scared by “the place, with its brawling, shrieking life”, abusive drunks and fighting prostitutes, Park started to adapt, and

… began to study the people for what they were, and not what they did. Their true kindness, their generosity and charity filled her with shame. They were so much more genuinely loveable than she had given them credit for being, and she began to understand how the incredible congestion of their lives, the rabbit-warren houses, the inescapable dirt of an area which is built around the big factory chimneys all contributed to their innately lawless, conventionless attitude towards life. She began to understand that in such a place dirt ceases to become important, morals are often impracticable, and privacy is an impossibility.

As it turned out, though, The harp in the south was written, almost, you could say, accidentally. In New Zealand for some needed R&R after the birth of their second child, they are sent a clipping by Uncle Looshus which announces a Sydney Morning Herald competition for a novel, short story and poem. Park tries to convince Niland to write a novel but he refuses, saying he only writes short stories, and tells her to have a go. So, she does, and of course Surry Hills is her inspiration:

… she felt she understood them. She certainly liked them, mostly because in the midst of all their dirt and poverty and fecklessness they contrived to be happy.

She wrote down a sentence that seemed to sum up their philosophy: “I was thinking of how lucky we are”.

That sentence, the last line in the book, was the key that opened the door. From then on the story grew by itself.

This book, published serially in 1947 to both acclaim and vituperation, has become a classic of Australian social realism, albeit, as Paul Genoni says, “tempered with romanticism”. The same could be said of this delightful memoir.

Challenge logoRuth Park and D’Arcy Niland
The drums go bang!
Illustrated by Phil Taylor
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956
ISBN: None

Chloe Hooper, The arsonist: A mind on fire (#BookReview)

Chloe Hooper, The ArsonistIt may not have been the most sensible decision to read Chloe Hooper’s book, The arsonist, during Australia’s worst-ever bushfire week, but in fact I picked it up a few days before the crisis became evident, and once I started I couldn’t put it down. The arsonist tells the story of the man arrested and tried for one of the major fires in the Black Saturday series of bushfires that ravaged much of Victoria in February 2009. I have often wondered how you identify how and where a fire started. Hooper answers much of this.

However, what made this book unputdownable was that Hooper adopted, as she did in The tall man, the narrative (or creative) nonfiction style to tell her story, and proved herself, again, to be a skilled exponent of this genre. For those not sure about this genre, Lee Gutkind’s definition, quoted in Wikipedia, is a good start: “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” In other words, the information must be true or factual, but presented like a story.

Car in fire burnt bush

Bush, eastern Victoria, 9 mths after Black Saturday, 2009

Hooper structures her story like a classic three-act drama: I The detectives, II The lawyers, III The courtroom, followed by the Coda. She provides the facts – the whos, whens, wheres and whys – as much as they are known, but forms them into a narrative. So, after an opening paragraph which evocatively describes a fire-destroyed bush landscape, the second paragraph reads:

At the intersection of two nondescript roads, Detective Sergeant Adam Henry sits in his car taking in a puzzle. On one side of Glendonald Road, the timber plantation is untouched: pristine Pinus radiata, all sown at the same time, growing in immaculate green lines. On the other side, near where the road forms a T with a track named Jellef’s Outlet, stand rows of Eucalyptus globulus, the common blue gum cultivated the world over to make printer paper. All torched, as far as the eye can see. On Saturday 7 February 2009, around 1.30pm, a fire started somewhere near here and now, late on Sunday afternoon, it is still burning several kilometres away.

You can see, in this, that we are being invited in to see what her “character” Detective Henry is seeing, but we are also given very specific facts. The next paragraph, provides some personal background to this first “character” in her story:

Detective Henry has a new baby, his first, a week out of hospital. The night before, he had been called back from paternity leave for a 6 am meeting …

As Part I progresses, we meet other police officers and forensic experts; we travel with them as they investigate the fire itself and then follow leads to the most likely suspect; and we are with them as they interview this suspect and arrest him for the crime. We also meet many victims who lost family members and/or property. Their stories are heartrending – excruciating, in fact, as I wrote in the margins – and were particularly hard to read, with similar losses occurring in Australia right now.

Using a similar narrative technique in Part II – providing facts, and describing the “characters” and their feelings – Hooper then introduces us to the Legal Aid lawyers, or one lawyer in particular, brought in to defend the accused. As she does this, our allegiance and sympathies shift a bit from the hardworking police to the hardworking lawyer – and, perhaps even, to her client who, only now, at this point in his life, is finally diagnosed as autistic, which provides a previously missing context for his strange responses and behaviours. And then, finally, in the third “act” or part, these two – the police and the legal team – come head to head in court, with our allegiances swaying between the two as they tussle it out, until the jury delivers its verdict.

The Coda, “set” some years later, contains Hooper’s reflections on the aftermath and some commentary on the process. For example, it’s clear that she had researched the case, had visited the fire region many times, including soon after the arrest, and had interviewed many of the participants, but, like Helen Garner in her three major narrative nonfiction works, had not managed to speak to the person at the centre, in this case, Brendan Sokaluk, the arsonist. Her request is refused, for understandable reasons. She was, she writes, both “disappointed” and “relieved”. Would speaking to him, she wonders, answer the book’s central question of “why”, and, even if he were able to explain why,

would understanding why Brendan lit a fire make the next deliberate inferno any more explicable? Or preventable? I now know there isn’t a standardised Arsonist. There isn’t a distinct part of the brain marked by a flame. There is only a person who feels spiteful, or lonely, or anxious, or enraged, or bored, or humiliated: all the things that can set a mind – any mind – on fire.

And there, I suppose, is the multiple tragedy of this story: the tragedy of a man ridiculed and bullied all his life for being different; the tragedy of a community that isn’t very good at managing people who are different; the tragedy of the conflagration (in this case a fire, but it could be anything) that can result when the two collide; and the overriding tragedy that there are no simple answers to arson.

Now, I fear you might think that I have given the “story” away and that you therefore need not read it. But, you don’t read The arsonist for the “story”. After all, this is nonfiction and the basic “story” is known. You read it for the insights that a fine mind (not a mind on fire!) like Hooper’s can bring to the situation. What she brings is both clarity about the facts and a nuanced understanding of what they mean. The arsonist is, as everyone’s been saying, an excellent read.

Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review of this book includes information from a festival conversation session featuring Hooper.

Challenge logoChloe Hooper
The arsonist: A mind of fire
Hamish Hamilton, 2018
ISBN: 9780670078189

Louise Erdrich, The bingo palace (#BookReview)

Book coverWhen I bought Louise Erdrich’s The bingo palace in 1995, I never expected it to take me 24 years to read it but, there you go. Time flies, and suddenly it was 2019 and the book was still sitting on the high priority pile next to my bed! Truly! It took Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week to make me finally give it the time it deserved – and even then I’m late. Oh well.

I have read Louise Erdrich before, back in 2000 when I read The crown of Columbus with my reading group. She it wrote with her then husband, the late Michael Dorris. While it was an enjoyable read, it didn’t make a big impression. However, I have always remembered it because of her. So now, her!

Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa), and it is among the people of this nation that The bingo palace is set. One of the reasons the novel captured my attention all those years ago is because when we lived in the USA, we became aware of the importance of gambling as a major source of income for many Native American communities. Erdrich’s narrative draws from this fact, but it also provides her with the “luck” or “chance” metaphor – “the drift of chance and possibility” – which underpins the novel. One-third of the novel’s twenty-seven chapters, in fact, include the word “luck” in their titles, as in “Lipsha’s luck”, “Shawnee’s luck”, “Lyman’s luck”, and so on. Luck, good and bad, is a constant in the novel, and Erdrich constantly puts her characters to the test, as they navigate their rocky worlds. How much “luck” is of their own making is a question for them, and us the readers, to consider, I think.

Anyhow, the story centres on an unsettled young man, Lipsha Morrissey, and his love for Shawnee Ray, who has had a baby with Lyman Lamartine, manager of the titular Bingo Palace. The novel contains a complex web of relationships, which takes a while to unravel, but for which we are prepared in the first chapter:

The story comes round, pushing at our brains, and soon we are trying to ravel back to the beginning, trying to put families into order and made sense of things. But we start with one person, and soon another, and another follows, and still another, until we are lost in the connections. (p. 5)

Now, you might have noticed something interesting about the voice in the above paragraph – it’s a first person plural voice. This voice – which operates a bit like a Greek chorus, though here it’s the tribal Chippewa – disappears for most of the novel, reappearing near the end in chapters 25 and 27. The other chapters are told in first person for Lipsha’s story, and third person for all the other stories. This is tricky, daring stuff, but it works, partly because of the power of the stories being told, partly because of its unusual tone (to which I’ll return), and partly because of the language. Erdrich’s language is arresting:

As a baby, Lipsha knew how to make his hands into burrs that would not unstick from Marie’s clothing. (p. 28)


Unwilling, I followed him out to the barn, placing no in my mouth like a pebble to throw. (p. 47)


Albertine could see that Shawnee Ray bent her strength like a bow to the older woman’s need. (p. 210)


We get into the car, pull into the pitted road, and I try not to brush too hard against my sorrows. (p. 215)

Now, back to the story, which concerns Lipsha’s attempts to win Shawnee Ray’s love, after being called back to the reservation by his grandmother, Lulu Lamartine. Life is not simple on the reservation, and as we follow Lipsha’s desperate quest, we are introduced, through a wonderful array of characters, to reservation life – to the tension between old traditions and new businesses, between spiritual life and the material one. Lipsha tries them all – he is initially lucky at bingo and wins a van, only to lose it to some white Montana boys. With a degree of easy-come-easy-go nonchalance, he then seeks out his great grandmother, Fleur Pillager, for love medicine. She lives on sacred land around Lake Machimanito, that Lyman has managed to have set aside for another bingo palace. Lipsha also, with Lyman, tries a spiritual retreat run by ceremony man, Xavier Toose.

All this is told with a tone that veers between resigned realism and sudden visions, a tone that effectively conveys the paradoxes involved in trying to retain tradition while surviving in a modern world. Lyman puts his faith in bingo entrepreneurship, while Shawnee sees education as her way. Zelda, on the other hand, has tried for decades to deny love and passion, while Fleur puts her faith in land and spirit.

Near the end, Lipsha, who has his moments of insight, says:

It’s not completely one way or another, traditional against the bingo. You have to stay alive to keep your tradition alive and working. Everybody knows bingo money is not based on solid ground […]

And yet I can’t help but wonder, now that I know the high and low of bingo life, if we’re going in the wrong direction, arms flung wide, too eager. The money life has got no substance, there’s nothing left when the day is done but a pack of receipts. Money gets money, but little else, nothing sensible to look at or touch or feel in yourself down to your bones … Our reservation is not real estate. Luck fades when sold … (p. 221)

Of course, as I read this, I wondered whether I could see any comparisons with indigenous lives and literature here, and one book immediately came to mind, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review). The likeness is loose, but both books have a wildness about them. Both confront the challenge of marrying tradition with contemporary life, and both do it by slipping easily between concrete reality and what we non-indigenous readers see as something more magical, but which for many indigenous people is all part of one spectrum. Both books are exhilarating, mind-expanding, to read.

Our “Greek chorus” tells us near the end, when “the federals” try to get the truth out of Lulu:

anyone of us could have told them they were getting into mazy woods when talking to that woman. (p. 265)

As you’d probably expect, there is no simple resolution at the end. Instead, there is, as the “chorus” says, “more to be told, more than we know, more than can be caught in the sieve of our thinking”. Like “the federals”, I got lost at times in the “mazy woods”, but I thoroughly enjoyed the humour and inventiveness, the warmth and heart – along with the challenge – to be had in reading this novel.

Canadian blogger Buried in Print has also reviewed this novel.

BannerLouise Erdrich
The bingo palace
London: Flamingo, 1995 (orig. pub. 1994)
ISBN: 9780006547099

Nadine Gordimer, Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan (#BookReview)

There are authors I read long before blogging whom I really want to document here, in some way. One of these is Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer who first came to my attention in 1983 with her memorable, confronting 1956 short story collection, Six feet of the country.

Nadine Gordimer, as I’m sure you know, had a lifelong concern for economic and racial inequality and injustice in South Africa, and this is evident in her short story, Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan. The story is told third person through the perspectives of a mother and father, the titular Claudia and Harald. Early in the story, they are visited by Julian, their 30-year-old son Duncan’s friend. They assume there’s been an accident, but

This Julian draws the flaps of his lips in over his teeth and clamps his mouth before he speaks.

A kind of … Not Duncan, no, no! Someone’s been shot. Duncan, he’s been arrested.

This description of Julian is so typical of Gordimer in the way, in a few words, she conveys something grotesque, something that feels more than the bringing of bad news, even before we know why he is there.

Book coverHowever, this 1996 story is particularly intriguing because it seems to be related to her 1997 novel The house gun. As far as I can tell, the first third of the story I read is very close to the first chapter of that book, but after that I don’t know. I do know that the details of the crime seem a little different in “my” story (but it may just be that they are not fully revealed). Also the novel’s Duncan is 27, while the story’s Duncan is 30. So, did Gordimer write the short story and then decide to flesh it out into a novel? I don’t know, but here is what Wikipedia says about The house gun, which was her second post-apartheid novel:

It follows the story of a couple, Claudia and Harald Lingard, dealing with their son Duncan’s murder of one of his housemates. The novel treats the rising crime rate in South Africa and the guns that virtually all households have, as well as the legacy of South African apartheid and the couple’s concerns about their son’s lawyer, who is black.

While the short story doesn’t emphasise all this, there is a reference to people having guns for protection, and there’s the sense that we are dealing with the post-apartheid world.

Anyhow, back to the story. What I love, as I’ve already intimated, is how Gordimer creates tone. Here’s our couple on hearing that the crime for which Duncan has been arrested is murder:

He/she. He strides over and switches off the television. And expels a violent breath. So long as nobody moved, nobody uttered, the word and the act within the word could not enter here. Now with the touch of a switch and the gush of breath a new calendar is opened. The old Gregorian cannot register this day. It does not exist in that means of measure.

What a wonderfully fresh way of conveying the sense of discombobulation, of unreality, that results when the world seems to change in an instant.

From here – it’s a Friday – we follow Harald and Claudia through to their son’s arraignment on Monday, and into the hours immediately after, at which point the story ends, fairly suddenly.

One of the themes, in the story anyhow, concerns the idea that no matter how much you try to lock yourself away from the “outside”, you can’t keep it from coming in. This has a political as well as a personal reading. The story starts by telling us that Harald and Claudia had recently moved from a house to a “town-house complex with grounds maintained and security-monitored entrance”. Later in the story, Claudia, a doctor, does her shift at the clinic which services “areas of the city and once genteel suburbs of Johannesburg where now there was an influx, a rise in and variety of the population.” During this shift, she considers the pain that it is her job to assuage – the pain that comes from inside, like a tumour, and that which comes from the outside, like being burnt or, yes, hit by a bullet. She reflects:

The pain that is the by-product of the body itself, its malfunction, is part of the self; somewhere, a mystery medical science cannot explain, the self is responsible. But this – the bullet in the head: the pure assault of pain.

This is surely a metaphor for that fear of the “outside” by the well-to-dos who choose to live in security-monitored complexes. What’s inside, the implication is, cannot be necessarily controlled but it’s part of your own world; what’s outside is to be feared. In this section of the story, there are references to socioeconomic differences. Claudia gives out diet sheets, for example, to people, mostly black, who, she knows, are “too poor for the luxury of these remedies”.

It is, then, just the sort of story I like to read. The careful word choice, the slightly odd syntax, plus things like the references to class and race, combine to convey something that is more than a simple murder plot involving a son and his devastated parents. As the narrator slyly says:

This is not a detective story. Harald has to understand that the mode of events that genre represents is actuality, this is the sequence of circumstantial evidence and interpretation by which a charge of murder is arrived.

Circumstantial evidence and interpretation. The stuff of complex lives in complex times, eh? I’d like to read the novel now.

Nadine Gordimer
Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan
London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996
(A Bloomsbury Quid)

José Jorge Letria, If I were a book (#BookReview)

Book coverIf I were a book is one of those “gift” books you give to readers – and it was in that spirit that it was given to me for my birthday a couple of years ago. It’s a delight of a book, and is somewhat quirkier than these sorts of book-lovers’ gift books often are, which is why I’ve decided, finally, to share it with you. Or, have you seen or read it already?

My edition is a little hardback of 60 plus pages produced in San Francisco in 2014. The original, however, was published in Portugal in 2011, the author being Portuguese. The illustrator, André Letria, happens to be his son. Now I hadn’t heard of José Jorge Letria before, but he was born in the Lisbon District of Cascais, in 1951, and is apparently, says Google’s translation from a Portuguese biography, “a journalist, poet, playwright, fiction writer and author of a vast work for children and young people.” This biography also tells us that he has won many many national and international literary awards, including the Unesco International Prize (France), the Barcelona Classical Poetry Prize, the Plural Prize (Mexico), the Prize of the Paulista Association of Art Critics (São Paulo), and the Gulbenkian Prize. He has won prizes for “the environment in children’s literature” and the Manuel de Arriaga Prize for his contribution to the defense and dissemination of animal rights. He has been on many Portuguese, European and international literary boards, and his books have been translated into “over a dozen” languages. Yet, I hadn’t heard of him, until, that is, I was given this delightful ….

… love-letter to the book and reading. I fell in love with its passion and idealism. The book comprises two-page spreads, each one containing an image and the phrase “If I were a book” followed by a response. So, the first image shows a person looking at a book on a park bench, with the phrase “If I were a book, I’d ask someone in the street to take me home.” (What a nice sign that would make for a street library!) The next shows this same person opening a larger-than-life book, inside which there are stairs descending into unknown depths, with the phrase “If I were a book, I’d share my deepest thoughts with my readers”. And so it continues…

What makes this book so delightful is the personalising of the book (as in “if I were a book”), the ideas expressed in these personalised phrases, and the illustrations. I’m not sure what is allowed by copyright, but I’ve chosen three images to share with you, so you can see what I mean:


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ve chosen these three because the one suggests the way I like to read – slowly, savouring the words and ideas – and because the other two contain aspirations that I’d love books to achieve. You can see how in some images the book is supersized, while in others its size is more “normal”. The images are simple but beautifully whimsical, the colour palette is minimalistic, and the text’s font feels a little worn and loved.

And here, I think I’ll leave it, because what more, really, can I say?

José Jorge Letria
If I were a book
Illustrated by André Letria
Translated by Isabel Terry
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014 (orig. pub. 2011)
ISBN: 9781452121444

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (#BookReview)

Marilynne Robinson, GileadOnce again I have reason to start a book post with a discussion of the title, this time Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead. Gilead, in the context of this novel, has a literal and metaphorical meaning, literal because it takes place in the fictional Iowan town of Gilead, and metaphorical because “gilead” may also connote “hill of testimony”. This novel is, in fact, dying minister John Ames’ testimony of his life and values, something he is writing for his 7-year-old son to read when he is older.

Given Gilead was published in 2004,  many of you may already have read it, as well as her next two books, Home and Lila, which form a trilogy and which, I understand, cover the same people but from different perspectives. I read Gilead with my reading group. Responses were mixed, but many of us were interested enough to want to read Lila, at least, to see her perspective.

I was, though, one of those who liked the book unconditionally. I agree that it’s slow to get into, which is not helped by the fact that it has no chapters, excepting one “break” heralding a slight change of pace towards the end. This break occurs when a certain piece of information comes out about John Ames’ namesake, Jack (John Ames Boughton). It is around here that the book picks up in interest significantly because there’s a suggestion that there might even be a plot! However, given I’m a reader who doesn’t seek a strong plot and that I rather like spare writing in a melancholic tone, I was engaged from the beginning. It is melancholic, naturally, because the narrator knows his life is running out, but it’s more resigned than sad.

So, what is this essentially plot-less book about? That depends a bit, I’d say, on each reader’s perspective. For some the book is very much about theology and religion. John Ames speaks a lot about the Bible, about biblical characters and stories, and about death and heaven. Some in my group found his religion old-fashioned. And it is to some extent – partly because of its era. Ames was born in 1880 and the book is set in 1956 when he is 76 years old. John Ames also talks a lot about his family – his father and grandfather, in particular, who were both ministers. Now, Ames’ being born in 1880 means his father, and grandfather, were alive during the Civil War. We learn quite a bit about the history of the abolitionists in Iowa and Kansas. Ames’ grandfather was a John Brown follower, which meant that he was not above using violence to achieve the goal. His father on the other hand, having seen what his father did and thought, was a pacifist. Most of my reading group enjoyed this historical-cultural aspect of the novel.

But, what interested me most about the book was what I saw as one of its main themes, which concerns how to live a good life. In the opening paragraph Ames refers to a conversation with his young son. He writes

I told you that you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are may ways to live a good life.

Late in the novel, he says something much simpler than this, though. He says

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

Is he departing from the idea of living a good life, to just living your life? I’m not sure. Pretty much at the novel’s central point he refers a statement by theologian John Calvin that we are actors on a stage with God being the audience. Ames interprets this as suggesting that we are “the artists of our own behaviour”, and, further, that God as audience implies an aesthetic rather than (as well as?) a moral aspect to God’s reaction to us. He explores the implications of this role of God’s a little further but, while it was interesting, it’s not where I want to take this post. I have other ideas to share!

One of the main threads – or themes – in the novel concerns fathers and sons. This is pretty obvious, really, given the whole book is framed as a letter from a father to a son in which Ames discusses his wishes for his son, but it is amplified through his discussion of the relationship between his grandfather and father, and between his father and himself. The relationships are complex, as I’ve already suggested. But, his thoughts on these relationships are intensified by his relationship with and attitudes to his namesake, the aforementioned Jack, to whom he is a “second father”. It is Jack who forces Ames to reassess his values and attitudes, not to mention his understanding of his worth as a Christian minister.

The problem is that Jack has been a bad boy. He became involved with a young girl, and a child ensued – after which he scarpered, leaving his family to work out what to do. Ames struggles with his attitude to Jack – particularly when Jack reappears 20 or more years later, as Ames is writing this letter. He says of Jack’s behaviour:

It was something no honourable man would have done … And here is a prejudice of mine, confirmed by my lights through many years of observation. Sinners are not all dishonourable people. But those who are dishonourable never really repent and never really reform … in my experience, dishonour is recalcitrant.

This is his own view, he admits, because “no such distinction occurs in Scripture”. Again, we are turned to formal theology, but again, I am going to turn away. The point for me is, regardless of what is “scriptural” or not, that Ames struggles with the idea of forgiveness, of acting with grace towards Jack. This forms his inner conflict as he considers father-son relationships, his preaching to his flock, and his relationship with his old friend and Jack’s father, Boughton. It is through this conflict, through finally opening himself to really listen to Jack, that he comes to a deeper more all-encompassing idea of what “grace” and, within that, forgiveness, really mean.

And that’s why I liked this book. It’s quiet but it deals with the essence of what confronts each of us every day in our relationships with each other. It deals with the disquietude that we all confront when people don’t behave in the ways we think they ought. Ames describes it as “that old weight in the chest, telling me there is something I must dwell on, because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself.” You don’t have to be a minister or a Christian to have the same hope that John Ames does, which is “to die with a quiet heart”. Gilead is, to me, a lovely book about what it means to be human and to live with humanity.

Marilynne Robinson
London: Virago, 2006
ISBN: 9781844081486

WG Sebald, Austerlitz (#BookReview)

WG Sebald, AusterlitzFor the first time in my reading group’s 30-year history, we read a book recommended by a fictional character. It happened like this: after reading and discussing Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman (my review) in January, we thought it would be interesting if we all nominated which book mentioned by the “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya Saleh, that we’d most like to read. The book that got the most votes was Austerlitz. I was thrilled, because I bought my copy back in 2010 to read with one of my online reading groups, but never did, and because I had already read and been bowled over by his The emigrants.

But now where to start? A bit left field I think – which is probably not inappropriate given Sebald’s approach to literature. The “left field” happens to be one of my (few) never-forgotten book quotes. It’s from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and is Sethe talking about “the day’s serious work of beating back the past.” Sethe is, as most of you probably know, an American ex-slave who is living with the trauma of her past life. Austerlitz, in Sebald’s book, is a man who, as a four-year-old, had been sent from Prague to England on a Kindertransporte in 1939, never to see his parents again. Indeed, he suppresses all memory of his past life – realising later

how little practice I had in using my memory, and conversely how hard I must always have tried to recollect as little as possible, avoiding everything which related to my unknown past.

This realisation comes some 50 years later, in the early 1990s, when, one day, having become “increasingly morbid and intractable” after the death of his only true friend, he is in the Ladies Waiting Room of the Liverpool Street Station – and a memory comes back of his arrival in England. At this point, his “self-censorship”, his “constant suppression of … memories” brings about a nervous breakdown. Upon his recovery, he begins researching his past life, resulting in trips to Prague to look for his mother, and to Paris to do the same for his father. Much of this is couched in discussions of architecture – because Austerlitz is an architectural historian – forcing us to consider the role architecture plays in human history and psychology. It’s compelling, but more than that, mesmerising …

However, this book has been written about with great insight and sensitivity by reviewers at, for example, the New York Times and The Guardian, so I’m going to do something a little different, and respond to that fictional woman, Aaliya, who recommended the book to my group!

“His style, drawn-out and elongated sentences that wrap around the page and their reader …”

And I will start with the seemingly mundane, the style, because it is this that confronts us most strongly with we start the book. If you’ve never read Sebald before it could be a shock. There are almost no paragraphs – well you could say there are 5 including the beginning of the book – which means there are no real chapters. The story just continues on and on, often through very long sentences containing multiple clauses and lists. We do have a narrator, the person to whom Austerlitz is telling his story and who relates it on to us.

Strangely though, I found the writing page-turning. There is something mesmerising about the almost flat, rather melancholic, tone suffusing the narration, that you want to keep reading. At least I did – and so did most of my reading group once they’d “got into it”. The style, in other words, wraps around you.

There are motifs and images which recur through the novel, making the whole cohere, creating the tone and developing the themes. There are shadows, there’s darkness more than light, and colours are muted, mostly grey. There are star-shapes, railway stations and other monumental buildings. There are references to ghosts. Places are more often empty or deserted, than heavily populated. And there’s the mysterious operation of time and memory. All these support the narrative’s mesmerising quality.

The book also includes black-and-white photographs, encouraging us to see it as non-fiction but no, this is fiction. Austerlitz is a made-up character – but, says The New Yorker, Sebald sometimes called his work “documentary fiction”. In other words, this is a very different sort of read.

“All I am is lonely. Before I go to bed, I must put away Sebald …

… both The Emigrants and Austerlitz. I can’t read him now, not in this state. He’s much too honest. I will read something else.” 

Our “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya, who lives in Beirut, has experienced war herself, been affected by its ravages. I won’t say more here, because I think what I have said about the story and it’s tone already makes clear why she feels this. Sebald is not a writer to be read at times of distress or melancholy, but his insights into what we call “the human condition” are … well, let me put it this way: this is not a book you explain, really, but one you feel. What you feel is something that affects the way you think about human history, about where we’ve been and where, unfortunately, it looks like we’re going.

“I am proud that I finished the Austerlitz project. I consider it one of the best Holocaust novels.”

Aaliya goes on to say that “I find that when a subject has been heavily tilled, particularly something as horrifying as the Holocaust, anything new should force me to look with fresh eyes, to experience previously unexperienced feelings, to explore the hitherto unexplored.” And this is why Austerlitz is powerful. Austerlitz was a young boy in a little Welsh town while the war was on so he did not experience the Holocaust directly. But, his experience of being displaced comes back to haunt him later. So this is not about a person who directly experienced the Holocaust, nor is it, though, about the second generation. It is about someone who lived at the time, but had not experienced it first-hand because his parents, who did, had removed him. He is in a sort of limbo generation – and “limbo” is probably a good description for how he feels through much of the novel.

He writes, describing his experience of another mental/physical collapse:

It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the source of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed and was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.

This statement struck me powerfully, because not only does it reflect another experience of the Holocaust – another way of looking at its impact – but it articulates the experience of our stolen generations, and, beyond that, of any children removed, for good or bad reasons, from their homes. “Reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation”. What more is there to say?

There is so much to talk about this book, so much I haven’t touched upon, but I’m going to finish with a brief reference to his discussion of time, the past and memory which underpins the novel. Here is Austerlitz late in the novel:

It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not also be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

I love this organic way of looking at time, this suggestion of how we might experience, approach or understand the events, particularly traumas, that happen to us.

Our unnecessary woman, Aaliyah, calls Austerlitz a great Holocaust novel, but I’d go one step further and simply say it is a great novel. Full stop.

WG Sebald
(Trans. by Anthea Bell)
London: Penguin, 2002
ISBN: 9780140297997