Jessica Au, Cold enough for snow (#BookReview)

What did I say about mothers and daughters recently? Just when I thought I’d done with them for the year, along came another, Jessica Au’s gorgeous novella, Cold enough for snow. However, before I get to that, let me describe the award it won, The Novel Prize.

Cold enough for snow was the inaugural winner of this plainly named, but ambitious prize which was established by three independent publishers, Australia’s Giramondo Publishing, the UK and Ireland’s Fitzcarraldo Editions, and North America’s New Directions. It is “a biennial award for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world”, and looks for “works which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style”. The winner receives US$10,000 and simultaneous publication of their novel in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, and North America.

Jessica Au’s novel was selected from over 1500 entries worldwide, and was published in the above-named territories this year, but is to be published in many more. It has made quite a splash, and was one of the most favourited Australian books in my recent 2022 Favourite Picks post. Those who nominated it used words like “meditative”, “mesmerising”, “elegance”, “exquisite” and “quietly brilliant”. I would agree with those.

Told first person, Cold enough for snow revolves around a holiday in Japan organised by a daughter for herself and her mother. They walk, and travel by train; they visit shops, cafes, galleries, churches and temples, the things you do in Japan. Very few places are identified, keeping the focus on the characters and the ideas being explored, rather than on travel. As someone who has visited Japan several times, I was initially frustrated by this. I wanted to compare my experiences with theirs, but I soon realised that this was not that sort of book. Once I accepted that, I also realised that it was, in fact, the sort of book I enjoy.

By this I mean that it is one of those quiet, reflective books, ones without a lot of plot – albeit I like plots too – but with lots to say about life and relationships, and with much to make you think. The novel has an overall chronological trajectory following the daughter and her mother’s journey but, along the way, the daughter – our first-person narrator – digresses frequently to consider other people and relationships in her life, particularly with her sister and partner. It is in these digressions, in particular, that we get a sense of what this trip is about.

Ostensibly, the book is about the daughter and her mother, who live in different Australian cities, reconnecting. In the opening paragraph, the daughter describes their walking to the train station:

All the while my mother stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was the current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart.

However, it soon becomes clear that it is the daughter who is more concerned about drifting further apart. A couple of pages in she mentions that on a previous trip to Japan with her partner Laurie – one of the few named people in the novel – she “remembered thinking” that she wanted to share some of the fun she’d had with him with her mother. On the next page, she refers to a bonsai plant that her mother had had, and “remembered disliking it”, perhaps because it looked “unnatural, lonely, this very detailed, tiny tree, almost like an illustration, growing alone when it looked as if it should have been in a forest”. Subtly, Au has conveyed in the opening pages that the seemingly sure and in-control young woman we thought we had met is not that at all. Gradually this becomes more explicit. Nearly halfway through the novel, in one of her many digressions, she describes house-sitting for a lecturer and comments that “somehow it felt like I was living my life from outside in”.

There is a melancholic tone to this novel, which is not to say it is unhappy. It is simply that our narrator is uncertain about her life, while her mother, for whom she feels responsible, is quietly self-contained. Her relationships – with her partner, Laurie, with her sister, and with her mother – seem positive enough. It’s a ruminative book, in which the daughter’s thoughts roam between history, art, and life past and present, seemingly at will, but of course all carefully structured by Au to lead us to a deeper understanding. It’s a short book but I took time to read it because the thoughts and ideas, so quietly and delicately expressed, would constantly pull me up – because I am used to looking for meaning and answers in my reading. For example, early in the novel, she recounts looking at some pots in a museum. They were “roughly formed but spirited”, their handmade utility “undifferentiated from art”. I could grasp these ideas. So, it’s about art and life I thought, but then later, discussing Laurie’s father’s art, the daughter remembers feeling she didn’t “even know enough to ask the right questions”. And I realised that, perhaps, neither did I – and that this book, in which time and memory move fluidly rather than exactly, is about something very different.

The Japanese setting is perfect for this novel, because Japan too is paradoxical. In the cities, particularly, where our two spend most of their time, Japan is a bustling place but it also, sometimes in the smallest ways, manages to simultaneously exude stillness and quietness. Similarly telling is that the trip takes place in autumn – the mother and daughter’s favourite season – which is surely the season most conducive to reflection, and to the idea of change over which we have no control.

Early in the novel, one of the issues confronting our narrator becomes clear, that concerning whether to have children. She and Laurie have been discussing it exhaustively – between themselves, with their friends, and, it seems, also with her mother. She’s aware that, unlike her own generation, her mother very likely never had the opportunity to choose, and she comes to wonder

if it was okay either way, not to know, not to be sure. That I could let life happen to me in a sense, and that perhaps this was a deeper truth all along, that we control nothing and no one, though really I didn’t know that either.

Cold enough for snow is not easy to write about because its very essence is the mutability of life. How do you pin down something that seems to be about being unpinnable? And yet, Au manages to pin down this very fact, or, at least, to convey the idea that, as the daughter glimpses near the end, “perhaps it was alright not to understand all things, but simply to see and hold them”. A good book, methinks, to end the year on!

Lisa also reviewed this novel.

Jessica Au
Cold enough for snow
Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022
98pp.
ISBN: 9781925818925

Nell Pierce, A place near Eden (#BookReview)

Nell Pierce’s debut novel, A place near Eden, won the 2022 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It was my reading group’s last book of the year, and it engendered a lively discussion, partly because our response was mixed and partly because its setting on the south coast of New South Wales is well-known to us.

Part coming-of-age novel, part mystery, part family drama, A place near Eden is told first person in the voice of Tilly who is around 20 years old when she is telling her story to a mysterious “you” – at least, “you” is not revealed to the reader until around half-way through the novel, so I won’t reveal it now. I can reveal however, that Tilly is trying to tell her side of a story to this “you”, and slowly, what this story is comes out of the murky recesses of her memory.

My reading group’s practice is to start with each of us briefly sharing our first impressions before we settle into deeper discussion. My first impressions for A place near Eden were that I loved its exploration of how truth can be manipulated or twisted, of different versions and perspectives of the same experience, and of the difference between facts and truths, in personal lives, in law, in art, but that I found the tone a bit heavy-handed, with little respite. Respite in tone – as Shakespeare knew – is good. A place near Eden is a reflective novel in which Tilly reviews the events that had happened to her, trying to make sense of them, so its tone is peppered throughout with “perhaps”, “maybe”, “looking back”, “in retrospect”, “now”, “still” and so on. It was a little unremitting. However, A place near Eden is a first novel so can be forgiven some flaws.

As you will have guessed, the title has both literal and metaphorical meanings: it is set near Eden in southern New South Wales, and the characters may be “near” but they don’t achieve being “in” Eden (paradise). Their own flaws prevent it.

The story starts with a prologue which looks back to halcyon days in the life of Tilly, then 13 years old, and her foster brother Sem and friend Celeste who were 14, almost 15 years old. The dynamic is set between them, one in which the younger Tilly is seen by the other two as “just a kid”. There is a bit of an experience gap between them – as can happen at the time of early puberty. An incident happens at the local pool that sets us up for the tone of the book, though it’s not “the” incident on which the book centres. In this incident, a small child falls – or is knocked – and hurts his head. Who did it? Tilly blames Celeste, though she herself “might” have done it. Writing later, she says:

The more I think on things, one way or the other, the more real they seem. That I was afraid of getting in trouble. Or that I wanted to punish Celeste. That it was her fault, or mine. I can believe it either way.

Throughout the novel, which primarily takes place when Tilly and Celeste are around 19 to 21 years old, the story is told in this maybe-this-maybe-that sort of tone. It is, essentially, a story about finding one’s self, one’s identity. In this case, it’s Tilly’s, so we see it all through her eyes, as she struggles to keep up with the just-a-bit-older, just-a-bit more experienced, just-a-bit more confident Celeste. This sort of uneven friendship is difficult to maintain.

“it could play either way” (Tilly)

So we come to the critical incident. Tilly and Celeste have been living at a holiday shack near Eden, while Sem – who is in a relationship with Celeste – comes and goes at will. One night, however, he disappears, and Tilly, who was drunk at the time, is blamed for it. Did she cause it or didn’t she? This is what she is trying to comprehend and explain to “you”.

Tilly is a character who likes facts – her preferred reading is the encyclopaedia – but she is aware that there is often a gap between facts and the truth (which she describes as “something that hissed out”). She is aware that “even when people try to tell the truth about something as mundane as a tomato, they couldn’t help but betray other things about themselves”. So, what are we to believe from this self-consciously unreliable narrator, from this narrator who says to us “saying something with confidence … can make a story real” and that “maybe we all embroider the truth sometimes”? Late in the novel, when she writes about telling her story to her lawyer, she says “I could feel stories emerging in my mind, ways of presenting things that I knew would please her”. She admits to lying to both the police and the lawyer, but that doesn’t, in fact, mean she is guilty of what she is accused of.

Alongside Tilly telling her story is her description of the documentary film being made about the case by her erstwhile boyfriend, Peter, who tells the story from three angles – the lost, troubled boy (Sem); a revenge story (Tilly); the manipulator (Celeste). In each version, different pieces of information are omitted to construct a specific viewpoint about what happened. It’s a clever portrayal of the “art” of the documentary. Tilly sees how “controlled” it is, and admits that she had “thought in art there might be truth”. Not here … though she had seen “truth” in Celeste’s portraits.

The book’s tagline on the cover is, “who do you trust when you can’t trust yourself?” This personal story is part of it, and reminds me of the recent conversation I attended with Heather Rose. She commented that “life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves”. This could easily describe Tilly’s situation, as she struggles to come to terms with what she did – or what she may have done – in that tortuous process of becoming herself.

However, Nell Pierce also has a bigger story to tell, I believe. Late in the novel, Tilly comes to realise that, like her Mum, she is “sceptical of these neat stories we tell about people”. By concluding her book without a neat resolution, Pierce suggests to us that we too should beware of “neat stories”, that we should take nothing at face value. Question everything, just as Tilly seems to do.

Lisa also found this an intriguing book.

Nell Pierce
A place near Eden
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2022
296pp.
ISBN: 9781761066177

Lucy Neave, Believe in me (#BookReview)

Mother-daughter stories – in fiction and nonfiction – seem to have been particularly popular in recent years. Lucy Neave’s second novel Believe in me is one of these, but just this year I’ve read several others, including Larissa Behrendt’s novel After story and Jane Sinclair’s hybrid biography-memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops.

Their trajectories can vary, but in novels the most common one concerns a fractured relationship. More often than not, they are written from the point of view of the daughter (though in After story, Behrendt alternates the perspective between the two). Believe in me is one of those written from the daughter’s perspective, but in an interesting voice which switches between extended third person telling of her mother’s life and her first person telling of her own. The narrative starts around a year before Bet is born, out of wedlock in 1970s Sydney, to her 19-year-old American mother, Sarah. Why in Sydney and how Sarah became pregnant occupies the first quarter of the book.

However, the novel itself commences in 2004 with Bet telling us:

I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not exactly sure what happened to her in the year before I was born. At times, the anecdotes she told about her life make sense. At others, I traverse a tightrope high above the ground and have to fill the empty air beneath so that I can move from one place and time to another.

She is doing this because, she says, “if I can inhabit her consciousness, even a little, it might help me see who I am”. Immediately, then, we are clued into a problem, presumably the book’s key problem, that of Bet wanting to understand herself. She’s stalled it seems, but she needs, she continues, “to walk towards the future without always looking back”. Consequently, she tells her mother’s story by drawing on her mother’s scrapbooks “which are filled with overlapping memories and souvenirs and notes” and her own memory.

Sarah’s story is a sad and frustrating one. Bet introduces her in that first chapter as a naive, trusting 18-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York. She’s being sent away by her mother, and the religious community to which they belong, on a three-month mission to Idaho with their preacher Isaiah. Well, the inevitable happens and Sarah finds herself unbelieved, pregnant and despatched to Sydney, far away from home, to have the baby. Sarah is expected to give her baby up for adoption – to a childless aunt and uncle who show her no warmth. However, with the help of midwife Dora, she manages to escape, and thence begins her new life as a single mother in a strange country. The Whitlam government is in, and things are changing, but life is still not easy for a single mother, particularly one as unprepared for life, and as unsupported, as Sarah was.

While the focus of the novel is Sarah, it is told through the eyes of Bet, and in Bet’s eyes her mother rarely measures up. She frequently describes her as weak, when Bet really wants her mother to be “unbroken, robust”. The child’s eyes, however, seem to be at odds with the reality. For example, one-third into the novel, Sarah realises that her own mother back home is never going to help her:

Sarah had thought that in the end her mom would understand what she needed … Now she understands her longings have always been irrelevant. She’s meant to accept all that she receives. Only sometimes, like now, she can’t. In any case, she’s someone else now, different to the core.

This idea of “acceptance” is an important mantra for Sarah. Religious in origin – accept what God gives you – it often frames her choices, but in fact, she doesn’t always “accept”. Indeed, she flees several men when she realises they are not right for her:

Some things, she realises – and why did it take her so long to work this out – should never be accepted. Some things turn out not to have come from heaven.

Nevertheless, a few pages later, Bet continues with the weakness theme, “a part of her was still weak, the way it had always been”. The story here is one of the child never fully knowing the parent. It’s ironic, in fact, that Bet sees Sarah as naive, which she was, because for much of the novel, so is Bet in terms of understanding the pressures Sarah was under. The result is an uncomfortable but very real tension between these two who both love each other but struggle to make that love work.

The idea of “acceptance” is one motif that runs through the novel, but another involves animals. Sarah becomes a wildlife carer – particularly for injured wildlife – and Bet, a vet, which reflects their mutual desire to nurture. More curious though is the fox motif which threads through the story. A baby fox, back in her American childhood, is the first wildlife Sarah rescues and cares for. She eventually releases him, but “foxes will always be with you” becomes a bit of a grounding talisman for her. The clue to it lies in her mother Greta’s advice when she sends Sarah off: “Don’t worry about us. Be as free as a bird, as a fox”. In the tradition of mothers and daughters, Greta wants more for Sarah than she had, just as Sarah in her turn wants more for Bet – and yet, in their turn, the daughters don’t understand and so don’t appreciate this in their mothers.

I did find one aspect of the novel somewhat challenging, and this relates to its “interesting voice”. I love “interesting voices”, but there were times when Bet’s telling of Sarah’s story felt awkward. How did Bet know this? Was it from the scrapbooks, from conversations, from Sarah’s own confidences, or Bet’s imagining? The uncertainty this occasionally engendered affected my ability to properly engage with Bet’s perspective. However, I did enjoy the novel, particularly the way Neave weaves through it many of the social issues affecting women in the decades she traverses. There’s a political element to this personal story.

So, how to end? Or, more to the point, what does it all mean? When I’m in doubt, there are three things I turn to – the opening paragraphs, the title, and, where it exists, the epigraph. I’ve already mentioned the opening which explains that Bet is writing Sarah’s story in order to understand herself better. This, I’d say, she achieves (but to say how would give too much away).

Believe in me does have an epigraph, and it’s appropriate for a book about fraught mother-daughter love. It’s from Eudora Welty’s The optimist’s daughter, “… any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love”. I’ve read some Welty, but not this one. However, this idea seems perfect for a daughter to take from her mother’s life.

And finally, there’s the title. It’s a little trickier. As I was reading the novel, I wondered who was saying “Believe in me”? Sarah? Bet? God (whom she’s supposed to accept)? The egregious Isaiah who tried to convince Sarah to lie for him? Probably all of these, conveying the challenge we all face regarding who to believe and trust. It’s only through hard experience that we come to really know whom we can believe. Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, with its perceptive exploration of complex relationships, is one of those reads that makes you think, and for that I enjoyed it.

Lisa also reviewed and enjoyed this book.

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Lucy Neave
Believe in me
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
312pp.
ISBN: 9780702263361

Elizabeth von Arnim, Expiation (#BookReview #1929Club)

I cannot remember when I last laughed out loud – a lot – when reading a book. The book that broke the drought is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Expiation. Even in her darkest, grimmest novel, Vera (my review), Von Arnim managed to make me splutter several times, albeit ruefully. Expatiation, though, caused no such qualms.

I have loved Elizabeth von Arnim since I read Elizabeth and her German Garden in the early 1990s when Virago started publishing her. I went on to read several more of her books over the next few years, but then had a big gap until this year, when I read Vera. It reminded me how much I enjoy her. So, when I saw she had one published in 1929, I selected it for Karen and Simon’s 1929 Club. I finished it more or less on time, but the last couple of weeks have been so busy that I didn’t get to post it until now.

The edition I found was published by Persephone. They describe publishing it as first for them, because “it’s a novel by a well-known writer that has been entirely overlooked”. While most of Von Arnim’s books are in print with other publishers, Expiation, which they were now publishing ninety years after its first appearance, had been ignored. Why, they ask? Good question. I admit that, not having seen it around, I did fear it might be lesser.

Persephone offers some reasons. Firstly, the title “is not very catchy”. True, it’s not. They also suggest that its adultery theme would have been “faintly shocking” in 1929, and further that, although we now read it as a satire, at the time “the characters and their milieu may have seemed rather tame”. Would the satire have been missed? Anyhow, they quote from the novel’s opening chapter, which describes the novel’s central family and the London suburb they live in:

That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continuously increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened.

This last sentence, Persephone says, “was what deliciously and instantly convinced us that this was a book for us”. I am so glad they did because from the first few pages I could tell it was a book for me too. It truly is delicious.

So now, the book. As you’ve gathered, the plot centres around adultery, which is made clear in the opening chapter. Milly has just been widowed, and her wealthy husband, Ernest Bott, has only left her £1,000 of his £100,000. The rest he has left to a charity for fallen women, with the cryptic note that “My wife will know why”. She does, of course, but thought she had got away with it. What is remarkable about this book, which chronicles how both Milly and the Botts react to the situation, is that we remain sympathetic to Milly. She’s a sinner, she knows she’s a sinner, but she wants to expiate. How, is the question?

The Botts, meanwhile, don’t know what to do. They do not want scandal to ruin their good name, and, anyhow, the male Botts in general rather like round, plump Milly versus their “bony” wives. Moreover, they are not known for meanness: “The family had always behaved well and generously in regard to money, and it would never do for Titford to suspect them of meanness.” Hmmm, a bit of appearance-versus-reality going on here. So, having decided, Jane-Austen-Sense-and-sensibility-style, not to give Milly some of their money, they agree to take her into their homes, in turn, until it all dies down, after which she can go live with Old Mrs Bott, who is perfectly happy to have her. Old Mrs Bott is the voice of reason in the novel. Experience has taught her

that in the end it all wouldn’t have mattered a bit what Ernest had meant or what Milly had done, and that they might just as well have been kind and happy together on this particular afternoon, as indeed on all their few afternoons, and together comfortably eaten the nice soup and sandwiches.

However, a spanner is thrown in their works when the shocked and mortified Milly disappears the day after the funeral. To say more about the plot would give too much away – even though the plot is not the main thing about this book.

What Von Arnim does through this plot is take us on a journey through humanity. Milly’s attempts at expiation often fall flat, either because she doesn’t manage to do what she plans or because others don’t behave towards her as she expects, even wants, them to do. For example, on one occasion, she has “no doubt at all that here at last she was in the very arms of expiation” and yet it comes “to her so disconcertingly, with a smile on its face”. Can this really be expiation? Milly’s not sure. One of the book’s ironies – and points – is, in fact, that the greatest sinner, technically, is among the kindest in reality.

The thing I like about Von Arnim is her generosity. It is on display throughout this novel as Milly, seeking expiation (but also to survive) moves between people she knows, from her previously sinning sister and her obliviously self-centred lover to the various Botts who range from the puritanical and pompous to the warm and lively. Most of these characters, like Austen’s, may come from a narrow realm of society but they represent a much wider spectrum of human behaviour. Like Austen, too, Von Arnim’s targets are not just the personal – greed, selfishness, narrow-mindedness, silliness, pride, self-importance, ignorance, and so on – but the societal, particularly gender, marriage and money. “Too much worldly prosperity”, she writes for example, “deadens people’s souls”.

So, in Expiation, Von Arnim skewers human nature and her society much like Jane Austen does. Sometimes the situations may be a little dated as they can also be in Austen, but human nature itself doesn’t change much – and this is so knowingly, so inclusively, and so generously, on display. There are some less than stellar people here, of course, but as in Austen, they are treated with respect for their humanness by the author, while also being exposed for exactly who they are. I’m going to – with difficulty – choose just a couple for you, one touching on the theme of sinning and morality, and the other on money.

Here is the eldest Bott, Alec, trying to avoid hosting Milly first, because of his wife’s puritanical approach to life:

He stopped, an undefined idea possessing his mind that Milly might be purer after having passed through the sieve of other visits, and more fit to stay with his wife …

Von Arnim’s language – so fresh and funny. And here is another Bott, Fred, telling his sons they will be helping Milly:

“Do you mean financially?” inquired Percy, his eyes still on his paper.
“Kindness,” said Fred.
“Kindness! Well, that’s cheap, anyhow,” said Dick.
“And easy,” said Percy, turning the pages. “I always liked Aunt Milly.”

Finally, I will leave you with one more bon mot from Old Mrs Bott who reflects, at one point during the novel:

It seemed as if these poor children had no sense whatever of proportion. They wasted their short time in making much of what was little, and little of what was much.

With a wit and a sense of humanity that is a joy to read, Expiation encourages us to think about what is important to living both a good life, and a kind and fair one.

Elizabeth von Arnim
Expiation
London: Persephone Books, 2019 (orig. pub. 1929)
314pp.
ISBN: 9781906462536

Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (#BookReview)

French Korean writer Elisa Shua Dusapin’s award-winning debut novella, Winter in Sokcho, was published when she was just 22 years old. As the title conveys, it is set in Sokcho, a tourist town in the Republic of Korea near the border between the two Koreas. In fact, when the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries following World War II, Sokcho was on the Northern side, but became part of the South after the 1953 Korean War armistice 1953. I suspect Sokcho was chosen as the setting partly for its “divided” history, this being in-between, neither one thing or the other,

But, more on that later. The novel’s unnamed first person narrator is a 24-year-old French Korean woman who works in a struggling guesthouse. She seems to do everything – reception, cooking, cleaning – but with little enthusiasm. The novel opens with the arrival of an unexpected guest, the 40-something French graphic novelist, Yan Kerrand. The two are drawn to each other in some way, but, at least from Kerrand’s point-of-view, it doesn’t seem to be romantically driven. For our protagonist, the situation is a little more complex. She has a boyfriend – Jun-Oh – but it’s not a satisfactory relationship from her perspective. However, her fish-market worker mother is expecting an engagement any day. The situation is ripe for something different to happen in her life, but will it – and what, anyhow, does she want? She seems betwixt and between.

Winter in Sokcho has many of the features I like in a novella, starting with spare expressive prose, a tightly contained storyline, and a confined setting. There’s also a small cast of characters, with little or no digression into backstories. All we have is what’s happening now.

And, what is happening now is that the stranger’s appearance has affected our narrator. In the second paragraph, while registering him as a guest, she says

I felt compelled for the first time since I’d started at the guest house, to make excuses for myself. I wasn’t responsible for the run-down state of the place. I’d only been working there a month.

We then move to her visiting her mother, and another thread begins to appear, that of body image. We’ve already been told that one of the guesthouse guests is “seeking refuge from the city while she recovered from plastic surgery to her face”, and now we are introduced to our narrator’s mother’s concern about her appearance. She’s too thin, her mother says. Our narrator rejects this, but soon after, in a photograph her boyfriend has taken of her, she sees “a wasteland of ribs and shoulder blades receding into the distance … her bones sticking out” and is “surprised at how much”. When she’s with her mother, she binges on the food her mother makes, only to feel “sick” and later repelled by her “misshapen body”. There is a tension between this single mother and her daughter that pervades the novel. We sense that our narrator would like to leave Sokcho. Indeed, there’s a reference early on to the “literary world” suggesting she has aspirations in that area, but she feels she cannot leave her mother. Betwixt and between.

Throughout the novella, there’s an atmosphere of things being out of kilter or not quite right. Early on, the narrator describes Sokcho’s beach:

I loved this coastline, scarred as it was by the line of electrified barbed wire fencing along the shore.

This is not your typically loveable beach view, but she herself bears a physical scar on her thigh to which she often refers. It’s unexplained but there are hints later of self-harming. Meanwhile, later in the book, Kerrand tells her that he prefers the beaches of Normandy to those in southern France, because they are

Colder, emptier. With their own scars from the war.

And so the novella progresses, in this clipped spare prose, with a sort of wary dance going on between the narrator and Kerrand. He’s there for inspiration for the last book in his series about “a globe-trotting archaeologist … A lone figure. With a striking resemblance to the author.” She is intrigued by him. She offers to show him some local sights – the border region, with its checkpoint “No Laughing” rule, and the nearby national park, with its snowy mountains and waterfalls. She watches him, surreptitiously, as he draws by night, but always the drawings are destroyed by morning, because they are imperfect.

What does Kerrand see in her, what is he looking for? This being a first person narrative, we see it all through her eyes. She is as reliable a narrator as she can be, but like any first person narrator her viewpoint is limited by her perspective.

Winter in Sokcho does not have a simple resolution, but I’ll return to that idea of Sokcho being chosen as the setting. Its divided history mirrors our narrator who is also divided – in her French Korean heritage and her torn sense of self. Further, Sokcho is described as “always waiting”, as it seems also is our narrator, though for what, even she doesn’t really know.

How much is this a personal story and how much political? Two-thirds through, as she and Kerrand discuss their scarred beaches, she tells him (and just look at this writing):

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of the war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In winter that never ends.

There can be no neat ending to such a story, but without spoiling anything, I’ll share something she sees in Kerrand’s final drawing:

A place, but not a place. A place taking shape in a moment of conception and then dissolving. A threshold, a passage …

Does this suggest hope, albeit tenuous – for both the narrator and her Korea? I’m reading it that way. As for the closing lines … they are glorious.

Read for Novellas in November, Week 2: Novellas in Translation.

Elisa Shua Dusapin
Winter in Sokcho
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas-Higgins
Melbourne: Scribe, 2021 (Orig. pub. 2016)
154pp.
ISBN: 9781922585011

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Frederic Manning, The middle parts of fortune, Ch. 1 (#Review, #1929 Club)

I had identified two novels for my 1929 read, M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built and another. With Lisa also considering A house is built, I decided to go for the other. I started it, and am loving it, but I won’t finish it in time, so I thought I’d check my Australian anthologies for a 1929 offering, and found one. In the Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature is the first chapter of a book I’d been unaware of until I wrote my 1929 Monday Musings post this week. The book is The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916, by Frederic Manning.

It particularly caught my attention because the title sounds more like a nonfiction book. So, I checked it. Yes, it is fiction, I clarified, and has an interesting history. I’ll start, though, with the author…

Frederic Manning (1882-1935) was born in Sydney. An apparently sickly child, he was educated at home, and when a teenager he formed a close friendship with Rev. Arthur Galton, who was secretary to the Governor of New South Wales. When Galton returned to England in 1898, Manning went with him, but returned to Australia in 1900. However, he returned to England in 1903 – when he was 21 – and there he remained. He produced all his writing from there, but the Australian Dictionary of Biography (linked on his name) claims him as Australian.

That’s all very well – for us to say now – but at the time of his death, according to Nicole Moore who wrote his entry in the Anthology, he was “largely unknown in Australia”. And yet, she continues, “his novel, The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (1929) is cited around the world as one of the most significant and memorable novels of the First World War”. Indeed, she writes, it is “often grouped” with Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to arms and Erich Remarque’s All quiet on the western front.

Manning served in the war from October 1915, first as Private (no. 19022) and later as a second lieutenant, though apparently the officer’s life did not suit him. He drank, and resigned his commission in February 1918. Wikipedia explains explains that, with increasing demand through the 1920s for writing about the war, and his having published some poems and a biography, he was encouraged to write a novel about his wartime experiences – and so The middle parts of fortune was born.

The story does not end here, however. The first edition was published privately and anonymously, under subscription, says Moore. Soon after, in 1930, an expurgated edition was published under the title Her privates we, with the author now identified as Private 19022. This version, Moore says, “removed the soldiers’ expletives that strongly punctuate the text”. Acceptable, apparently, for the private edition, but not for the public one! Wikipedia says that Manning was first credited as the author, posthumously in 1943, but the original text wasn’t widely published until 1977.

Wikipedia identifies the book’s admirers as including Ernest Hemingway, Arnold Bennett, Ezra Pound, and T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence is quoted as saying of The Middle Parts of Fortune that “your book be famous for as long as the war is cared for – and perhaps longer, for there is more than soldiering in it. You have been exactly fair to everyone, of all ranks: and all your people are alive”, while Ernest Hemingway called it “the finest and noblest novel to come out of World War I”. How could I have not known it?

Now, the book … Wikipedia says that each chapter begins with a quote from Shakespeare – answering a question I had, because Chapter 1 so starts. The source of the quote, however, is not cited, but a quick internet search revealed it to come from Act III, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part 2:

By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once;
we owe God a death. … and let it go which way it will,
he that dies this year is quit for the next.

It basically says that we can only die once, and that we’ll all die one day – so, we may as well accept our fate? A soldier’s creed?

Before I say briefly discuss the first chapter, I’ll add that Nicole Moore says that the protagonist’s nationality is not “made explicit” which is “in keeping with the novel’s deflation of military hierarchies and nationalism”. She goes on to say that it explores “the effect of war on reason and selfhood” and is thus “an existentialist study of the extremes of human experience”.

I’ve read several novels, over the years, about World War 1, including – to share another Australian one – David Malouf’s Fly away Peter. It too powerfully evokes the terrible impact of that war.

So, Manning’s Chapter 1 introduces us to a soldier stumbling back to the trenches after some action during which many men had been lost. Soon, he – named Bourne, we learn – is joined by a couple of Scottish soldiers – not from his battalion – and then an officer from his. The rest of the excerpt chronicles his moving through a “battered trench” to join his compatriots in their dugout, before setting off again to meet their captain and retire to their tents in the ironically, but truthfully, named “Happy Valley”.

The tone is one of desperate resignation. Faces are blank (despite “living eyes moving restlessly” in them); no energy is wasted in unnecessary talk; and whiskey is a necessary support after “the shock and violence of the attack, the perilous instant”. The description of their progress from the dugout to the camp above ground beautifully exemplifies the writing:

they saw nothing except the sides of the trench, whitish with chalk in places, and the steel helmet and lifting swaying shoulders of the man in front, or the frantic uplifted arms of the shattered trees, and the sky with clouds broken in places, through which opened the inaccessible peace of the stars.

The “frantic uplifted arms of the shattered trees” and the “inaccessible peace of the stars” conveys it all – and this is only Chapter1.

If you would like to know more about this novel, you can check Lisa’s blog, as she knew of this book and reviewed it back in 2015!

Read for the 1929 reading week run by Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book).

Frederic Manning
The middle parts of fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (1929)
in Macquarie PEN anthology of Australian literature (ed. Nicholas Jose)
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2009
pp. 365-369
ISBN: 9781741754407

Tom Gauld, Goliath (#BookReview)

It’s probably just me, but I hadn’t heard of Tom Gauld until a member of my little volunteer indexing team sent me a link to some of his “cultural” cartoons in The Guardian. I was immediately enchanted. And then, he lent me one of Gauld’s graphic novels, the above-named Goliath. Being primarily a textual person, I am not a big graphic novel reader, but our son became keen on them in his teens, so I have some familiarity and have read a handful.

Now I’ve added Goliath to that elite bunch. It’s the sort of graphic novel I enjoy – spare, drily witty, a bit melancholic. It is also, as you will have assumed, a retelling of the biblical David and Goliath story. Like many modern retellings, Goliath is told from a different perspective, that of Goliath himself, who is seen as a pawn in the game of war. In a wry touch, Goliath is your quintessential gentle giant. When, out of the blue, he is approached to be measured for some armour, he says to the armour-maker, “Are you sure this isn’t a mistake? I mainly do admin”. As one who doesn’t mind a bit of admin, I’m with Goliath.

Gauld has published well over 20 books, starting back in 2001, but according to Wikipedia he is best known for Goliath (first published in 2012) and Mooncop (2016). I notice that his latest, published just this year, is Revenge of the librarians. Now, that’s one I’d love to read!

Anyhow, back to Goliath. Although he’d rather do admin work, destiny has other plans for him as we know – and so, he finds himself, under the Philistine king’s orders, waiting in a valley, armoured and armed up, issuing, morning and night, a challenge to the Israelites:

I am Goliath of Gath,
Champion of
the Philistines.

I challenge you:

Choose a man,
Let him come to me
that we may fight.

If he be able
to kill me
then we shall be your servants.

But if I kill him
then you shall be
our servants.

Poor Goliath. “I’m not a champion”, he says. In fact, he continues, “I’m the fifth worst swordsman in my platoon … I do paperwork. I’m a very good administrator.” But, in classic political spin, he’s told that there won’t be any fighting. He just has to “look like a champion” and “the enemy will cower”. We all know how that turned out … along came David (albeit in this version, after a very very long time of waiting for poor Goliath).

The reviews on the back cover sum it up beautifully. The New York Times says that Gauld uses “simple, clever images to explore the larger, more complicated issues of war and heroism”, while London’s The Times says, and I particularly like this, that “Goliath is a master class in reduction … a celebration of the Christian underdog becomes a subtle meditation on the power of spin and the absurdity of war”. The rest of the back cover review excerpts are similarly spot on.

Small reproduction, allowed for review purposes.

So, did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. I liked the spareness of the art and the text. The first five textless pages set the scene – that is, they show Goliath going about his day quietly, peacefully, doing his paperwork, having a stretch at his desk, and trudging down the hill on which the encampment is located to get a drink. One of my challenges with graphic novels is taking in the images and the text, without letting one distract me from the other, but in Goliath the spareness of both made this easy. Making it easy to comprehend, though, is not the main reason for the spareness! It also reduces the story to its essence, encouraging us to engage with Goliath and what he is experiencing.

I also liked the humanity of Goliath and the small boy whose job it is to support him. As they traipse to see the captain, the small boy carries Goliath’s oversize shield. “Are you OK with that?”, asks Goliath. “Sort of” replies the boy. These two, we clearly see, are pawns in the game, potential “collateral damage” as it were, though of course the Philistine leaders believe they have the winning hand.

I also liked the subtle humour, which you have hopefully picked up already. And, of course, I appreciated the anti-war message conveyed through a twist which shows the ostensibly powerful giant as the manipulated underdog – just by changing the perspective. Something we all need to do, eh? See and feel things from another side. Recommended.

Tom Gauld
Goliath
Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2017 (orig. ed. 2012)
[96]pp.
ISBN: 978770462991

Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch (#BookReview)

Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch is a curious book. It’s my fourth Julian Barnes, and the third I’ve read with my reading group. In 1995 we read A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters, and in 2012 it was his Booker Prize winning The sense of an ending (my review). (I have also read his curious but enjoyable Pedant in the kitchen.) All have intrigued me, for different reasons.

Elizabeth Finch tells the story of a man’s fascination with an inspirational teacher, the eponymous Elizabeth Finch, who taught an adult education class on Culture and Civilisation. This man is Neil, our first person narrator, and he maintains a friendship with EF (as he refers to her), through semi-regular lunches, until her death some two decades later. Through Neil’s memories of the class and his reading of EF’s papers that she’d bequeathed him, Barnes explores various ideas, including how we live our lives (particularly in terms of friendship and love), and the impact and thrust of history (primarily through considering the so-called last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate). (Interestingly, the protagonist in The sense of an ending is also bequeathed personal writing.)

The novel, while told chronologically, is quirky in form. Part One comprises Neil’s introduction to EF, up to her death; Part Two contains Neil’s “essay” on Julian the Apostate (who was significant to EF’s ideas); and Part Three returns to Neil, now focusing on trying to understand EF with a view to possibly writing a memoir/biography. Here, he also catches up with old student friend, and ex-lover, Anna, who does enliven the book. In a sense, the novel reminded me a little of J.M. Coetzee’s tricksy books, like Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a bad year (my review), because they also tread this strange fiction/nonfiction, novel/philosophy ground.

At this point, I’m going to depart a little from my usual approach, and share some of my reading group’s discussion, because the book book engendered widely divergent reactions. They fell into three groups. One member loved it, describing it as a dense, compact novel which takes readers down interesting paths. She enjoyed thinking about Julian the Apostate, and what might have happened had he prevailed, and she enjoyed reading about the wide range of thinkers who have pondered Julian over time. A couple actively disliked it or were “very disappointed”. They felt the novel had some interesting threads but found it simplistic, repetitive, disjointed. They didn’t like the EF character, and one described the novel as “an ordinary study of a crush on an ordinary woman”. The rest of us, including me, had mixed feelings. Our reactions varied but we all found things to like (or be intrigued by) as well as dislike (or be mystified by). I won’t share all our ideas, but a couple of us felt that the book read like something that Barnes wanted to “get off his chest” at this stage in his life. (He’s 76). A couple of us particularly enjoyed the discussions of Epictetus and of history.

The book’s narrator, Neil, was problematic for some, but I rather liked his self-deprecatory tone, the sense of bumbling along as a middle-aged British male. Neil is not Barnes, but I wondered if reflects Barnes’ self-assessment or, at least, a recognition of how he and his peers are viewed in the current age. It is tempting, actually, to see an autobiographical element to the novel, because EF was apparently inspired by the late British novelist Anita Brookner. She had beaten Barnes in the 1984 Booker Prize, but they had subsequently become friends and had lunched semi-regularly after that. I have read (and enjoyed) several of Brookner’s novels and can imagine her being somewhat like EF, who was “high-minded, self-sufficient, European” and “whose vocabulary was drawn from the same word-box she used for both writing and general conversation”. (Brookner’s books aways send me to the dictionary!)

What might Barnes have wanted to get off his chest? This is where I came unstuck a little. As I started reading the book, it felt like the elder Barnes wanting to work through long-pondered ideas, but what exactly were they? As the novel progressed, I felt less certain. Is Barnes – ironically perhaps – emulating EF, and throwing out seemingly random ideas for us all to consider. However, there are, actually, recurrent threads. One concerns whether the world might have been better had “history” fallen out differently. This is where Julian the Apostate comes in, because early in the novel EF poses the idea that Julian’s defeat in 363 was “the moment when European history and civilisation took a calamitous wrong turn” (p. 31), it being the moment when Christianity defeated paganism/Hellenism. I wondered if the novel was going to be an anti-Christianity treatise, but it’s not exactly. EF raises many questions – but she also draws some long bows. I think Barnes challenges us to think about this.

Anyhow, history is one of the book’s central concerns, which is not surprising, given Barnes’ age and the ideas that have underpinned his writing to date. I have only read three of his novels but from those, I’ve gathered that he likes to interrogate, often playfully, the slipperiness of life and relationships, culture and history. So, in this novel, he explores what we believe and who we rely on, when it comes to history (and that related field, biography). In his Julian essay, which some in my group found lifeless, Neil describes how perspectives on Julian’s role and significance varied over time. He’s been either completely ignored, or seen as the cause of all ills, or held up as a model for good thinking.

History, in other words, is “fallible”. It’s “for the long haul … not inert and comatose … [but] active, effervescent, at times volcanic”. This is not new, but worth repeating all the same.

EF also shares with the class an idea she attributes to Ernest Renan, which is that “getting its history wrong is part of being a nation” (p. 33). Renan, she points out, does not say part of “becoming” a nation. This point was appreciated by my reading group, given where Australian “history” is right now. I’m guessing it may also reflect Barnes’ own reflections on British history.

Another recurrent thread in the novel is EF’s interest in the Greek Stoic Epictetus‘ statement that

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our doing. (p. 21)

Epictetus’ point, as Anna clarifies with the often obtuse Neil in Part 3, is that learning to distinguish between the two, and understanding that we can’t do anything about what is not up to us, “leads to a proper philosophical understanding of life”. My reading group discussed this, with one member suggesting that “a proper philosophical understanding of life” means “not being neurotic”, that is, “not expending energy on the things you can’t influence”. Made sense to us!

    The novel does meander a bit, but that’s not all bad if you find the ideas you are meandering through interesting. Ultimately, I’d say that Elizabeth Finch is part homage to the people who inspire us, part a discussion of the business of living, and part an exploration of the fallibility of history and biography. It is not Barnes’ most exciting book, but I found it compelling enough all the same.

    Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book, which in fact she generously sent me. Thanks so much Lisa. Her post commences with an interesting discussion of its cover.

    Julian Barnes
    Elizabeth Finch
    London: Jonathan Cape, 2022
    181 pp.
    ISBN: 9781787333932

    Audrey Magee, The colony (#BookReview)

    Irish novelist Audrey Magee’s second novel, The colony, was my reading group’s August book, and it proved an excellent choice. Literary and highly readable, with vivid characters and a sophisticated exploration of its subject matter, The colony engaged us on all levels. It was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize (and may yet be shortlisted. We will know next week.)

    The novel’s overall subject is, as the title implies, colonisation – and Magee teases out its personal, cultural and political ramifications through a small island colony off the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. The word colony, like much in this book, is multi-layered. The novel is set over the summer of 1979, easily dated for readers by reporting of the assassination of Louis Mountbatten in August 1979.

    “the battle of the colonisers”

    The colony is carefully structured, with chapters about what’s happening on the island alternated with reports of sectarian killings from the Troubles in the north. These reports are brief, stark, and devastating, and serve as a constant reminder of what colonisation can do. But these reports are just one of the layers in the novel, which starts with the arrival of the ambitious British artist Lloyd (whose name is not random. He has plenty of money!)

    Lloyd is coming to the island to make his name. He is a modern colonialist in the way he assumes he can buy what he needs, and manipulate others, to achieve his goal. He promises, for example, to respect the islanders’ wishes that he not paint them, but this doesn’t last. The way Magee unfolds his role is clever and subtle, because the islanders, whose numbers have dwindled to twelve families, want and need his money to survive. His perspective is told through terse, poetic language.

    Arriving soon after Lloyd is the French linguist, JP Masson. He has been visiting this Gaelic-speaking island for years, undertaking a longitudinal study of the island’s linguistic patterns for his PhD. JP is fierce about the need for the islanders’ language to preserved as is. He resents the infiltration of any English into the island, so Lloyd’s appearance is the last straw. It will, he believes, force a “sudden and violent ” shift to English, instead of the slow “linguistic evolution” to bilingualism that was under way:

    The Irish here was almost pure, Lloyd, tainted only by the schoolchildren learning English, by the intermittent visits of emigrants returning from Boston and London with their sophisticated otherness, and by mercenaries in linguistic mediation, men like [islander] Micheál who want only to communicate, indifferent to the medium or its need for protection  …

    JP’s perspective is told through the carefully thought prose of a writer, though when he is writing his paper on colonisation and language, I found it a bit heavy-handed, a bit too much of the telling not showing.

    However, this issue of maintaining language – and its relationship to the colonial project – is intelligently explored. JP argues uncompromisingly for preserving the language, because it “carries their history, their thinking, their being”, and resists the fact that languages change. He rides roughshod over the islanders, insisting that they must use their language. Lloyd, on the other hand, wipes his hands of the issue, “not my concern” he says. Meanwhile, the islanders go about their business, continuing to speak their language with each other, while being willing to use English where it benefits them. They are no fools, for all JP’s exhortations:

    What do you think, Micheál? said Masson. Are you less Irish when you speak English?
    I don’t talk politics, Masson. You know that.
    We’re talking about language, Micheál.
    Same thing

    Just this topic alone, and how Magee uses it to expose colonialism’s short, medium and long tail, could take up a whole review.

    Throughout the novel, the islanders are caught in the middle, but maintain a healthy perspective:

    Imagine that, said Mairéad. A Frenchman and an Englishman squabbling over our turf. 
    They’ve been squabbling over our turf for centuries, said Francis. 

    There is a wonderful, dry humour in this novel. And much of it comes from the islanders, who have their own way of dealing with things. But they, too, are not united. The matriarch, 89-year-old Bean Uí Fhloinn supports the old ways, and is a perfect subject for JP’s research, while her granddaughter Mairéad tends to be the voice of humane or sometimes just resigned reason. Her son James sees Lloyd as his way out. He doesn’t want to be a fisherman, as all the men before him have been (including his drowned father, grandfather and uncle). He shows real talent as an artist, and believes Lloyd’s promise to take him back to England at the end of summer.

    And so, as summer progresses, tensions increase, between Lloyd and JP (who both come from colonising nations, for all JPs attempts to ignore his own complicated origins), but also between the islanders as they respond to what’s happening on the island and up north. They comment on the violence in the news reports. In one telling moment, Mairéad and her brother-in-law Francis discuss the Mountbatten assassination in which two teenage boys were also killed. For Mairéad this is wrong, whilst for Francis it’s “collateral damage”:

    Where does this end, Francis?
    In a united Ireland, Mairéad. One free of British rule.
    And you’ll blow up innocent children to get it. Mairéad swallowed the last of her whiskey. You’re pathetic, Francis Gillan.

    Violence is a constant presence in the book, from the relentless news reports to young James’ brutal killing of rabbits for food. Francis hangs over the novel ominously. What does he do on the mainland? What will he do to “get” Mairéad, for whom, she knows, he is “Waiting. In the long grass. Waiting for me to fall flat on my face so that he can pick me up and make me his.”

    I am interested in this issue of violence and how it permeates society. It’s what I think Tsiolkas was on about in The slap (my review). When people are confronted with violence on a regular basis, how do they respond? How should they respond?

    Another issue Magee explores is art. While Lloyd hides away, painting his magnum opus – which draws inspiration from Gauguin (another artist who worked in a colonial, exploitative environment) – the islanders discuss whether they should be worried. Is it “just” art, or something else?

    James clearly understands that art has meaning, and recognises the message in Lloyd’s final painting:

    It’s me as you want me to be seen, Mr Lloyd. As you want me to be interpreted.

    It’s certainly not James as he wants to be seen. It’s a cruel scene, particularly given Lloyd’s earlier lofty dreams of showing “that art is greater than politics. Art as peacemaker, as bridge builder.”

    Truly, The colony is, to use a favourite word of the islanders, a “grand” book. The writing is expressive, with various motifs running through it – like rabbits, apples, smells – and refrains, like “young widow island woman”. There are gorgeous descriptions of landscape and nature, and of daily life. There’s rhythmic variation, finely evoking different characters and tones. And there’s the shifting of perspectives, sometimes within paragraphs, which brought to mind Damon Galgut’s The promise (my review).

    The colony recognises some of the fundamental ironies in the situation the islanders find themselves in. Both JP and Lloyd, who look like they might (or, at least could) do good, are ultimately there for their own aggrandisement. The little island colony, to which they come, functions then as a perfect microcosm of the colonised. With dwindling numbers, those remaining need to do what they can to survive, but the odds are stacked against them. It’s an all too common story, and Magee tells it skilfully, giving her novel an ending which makes its point without going for the high drama I half expected. It’s all the more powerful for that.

    Coincidentally, Lisa and Jacqui (JacquiWine’sJournal) both reviewed this book last month, and both are worth reading.

    Audrey Magee
    The colony
    London: Faber & Faber, 2022
    376pp.
    ISBN: 9780571367627 (Kindle ed.)

    Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (#BookReview)

    Back in February, I said I planned to “read” more audiobooks this year, and slowly I’m achieving that goal with Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay being my third for the year. In fact, it makes a particularly special contribution, because it is the first book I wanted to hear when we bought our new car with Apple CarPlay functionality back in 2019. That might sound strange for someone who claims to not read crime, but here’s the thing …

    While I don’t, as a rule, read crime, I do like to keep up with new Australian works. Emma Viskic’s 2015-published debut crime novel featuring a deaf investigator captured my interest at a time when we were looking for more fiction featuring differently abled protagonists. I wanted to read it, but I thought my best bet would be in audiobook form, because crime is the sort of writing that can work well in the car. The problem was that every time I checked my library audiobook catalogue there was no Emma Viskic, until a couple of months ago. Consequently, Resurrection Bay was the novel of choice for our last road trip. And it was a good choice, except …

    There are certain things you need in a car audiobook, we’ve found. One is that straightforward narratives work best. After all, one of the listeners is a driver who should be focusing mostly on the road. Drivers do not need to be trying to follow multiple strands or unpicking abstract language, for example. Viskic’s novel worked well in this regard. However, another is that the sound needs to be good, and easy to hear above road and car noise. Here is where we struck problems. The reader for this audiobook, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, was a great reader – and I am fussy about audiobook readers – but he used a wide dynamic range to convey emotion and meaning through his voice. This made hearing in the car very difficult at times. It would not be a problem, I expect, if you were listening to it through ear-pods while walking.

    And now, I really should get to the book – but one more proviso. Because I experienced it in audio form, my comments will be general and briefer than usual.

    Resurrection Bay is the first in Viskic’s Caleb Zelic series. He is a private investigator who has been profoundly deaf since early childhood – from meningitis (which was also behind author Jessica White’s deafness). Unlike Jessica, though, Caleb did learn to sign. GoodReads describes the plot as follows:

    When a childhood friend is murdered, a sense of guilt and a determination to prove his own innocence sends Caleb on a hunt for the killer. But he can’t do it alone. Caleb and his troubled friend Frankie, an ex-cop, start with one clue: Scott, the last word the murder victim texted to Caleb. But Scott is always one step ahead.

    “silence safer than words”

    Fictional detectives, I have come to learn, are not usually easy people. They tend to be loners, or to have some personal problem/s which add to the challenge and interest of the narratives featuring them. Caleb, of course, has his deafness. He’s an outsider, not because deafness necessarily makes him so, but because he, as his Koori ex-wife Cat tells him, lets it make him so. He refuses to admit his hearing impairment to others when communication difficulties occur, and this desire to “appear normal” not only impacts his ability to do his job, but it impacts his relationship with her. He also, frustratingly, refuses to “hear” what she is saying, jumping to the wrong conclusion because he is not listening. His deafness, in other words, is more than physical. It is also mental and emotional. Communication is, then, an underlying theme or motif in the work.

    However, I’ve gone off on a tangent, because of course the main story is the crime investigation, which Caleb undertakes with his business partner, the aforementioned Frankie. She has her own difficult past which includes having been an alcoholic. This Caleb knows. Their investigations take them from Melbourne to Caleb’s childhood home, the fictional Resurrection Bay, and in the process Caleb discovers things he didn’t know about his friend, the murder victim; jumps to conclusions about his brother Anton; and learns more about Frankie.

    Resurrection Bay is a page-turner, as you would expect. It’s well-written, with good crime-characterisation, and vivid evocation of place. It’s emotionally moving because Viskic makes you invest in her characters, but it also has some very violent and bloody moments. I guessed what the twist might be, but I was never completely sure until the end – and how it all actually fell out contained surprises.

    Now, though, I want to address the elephant in the room – the deaf protagonist, the Koori wife, and the whole whose-story-is-it-to-tell issue? Here’s the gen, from The Age. Viskic

    says being half-Slav gave her an outsider status that honed her power of observation.
    Her husband was raised in a Koori family and they have two grown daughters. One of her primary school classmates was deaf and the disability – and particularly the refusal to accept it as a disability by the deaf community – has always intrigued her. She learned Auslan for the novels.

    Later in the article, she is quoted as saying that

    writing from outside your own experience is dangerous … not just because people can shoot you down, but because you can do the wrong thing by people. But I wanted my nieces and nephews to have characters like them in a book. And also, it would have felt cowardly not to have done it.

    I am not a hard-and-faster on this whose-story issue. I do think that where longterm disempowerment is involved, own-stories are the better and fairer way to go, but it’s grey. If writers have reasons for writing a particular story that is not their own, then they wear the consequences, as Viskic is clearly aware. Ultimately, it’s not for me to say, but I felt Resurrection Bay was written with sensitivity and respect. The rest is up to those who own these stories.

    In 2016, Resurrection Bay won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction; and the Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel. An impressive debut.

    Kimbofo enjoyed this novel too, and Bill has posted on Viskic’s fourth Caleb Zelic novel, Those who perish.

    Emma Viskic
    Resurrection Bay
    (Read by Lewis Fitz Gerald)
    Wavesound from WF Howes, 2017 (Orig. pub. 2015)
    Duration: 7hrs 9mins
    ISBN: 9781510064140