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

    Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (#BookReview)

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray/River of dreams is Anita Heiss’ second work of historical fiction, her first being Barbed wire and cherry blossoms about the 1944 Cowra breakout in which she imagines a relationship between a Japanese escapee and a young First Nations Australian woman. I have not read that novel, but I have read, over the last year or so, other First Nations Australia historical novels, including Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and the collaborative novel by non-Indigenous Australian Craig Cormick and First Nations writer Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (my review). Long before these, though, was Kim Scott’s unforgettable The deadman dance (my review).

    The value of these, and like books, to offering a First Nations perspective on the one-sided history that most of us grew up with can not be under-estimated. Heiss, in fact, wrote in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, that through re-engaging with her Wiradyuri homelands in her early 50s,

    I realised very quickly I had to honour those Ancestors who for millennia have lived, loved, and nurtured the land and each other. And I wanted to pay tribute to those who carry on culture, knowledge and language still today. I felt I had a responsibility as an author to write our Wiradyuri heroes – our men and women – into the Australian narrative where they had been ignored or forgotten too long.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is her response to that realisation. It is of particular interest to me because it is set around Gundagai and Wagga Wagga, which are within three hours’ drive from where I live. Although I have been visiting the Gundagai region since the mid-1970s, it was only in recent years that I became aware of the story which is central to Heiss’ novel. This story concerns Gundagai‘s flood of 1852. As Wikipedia describes, the Murrumbidya flooded, killing at least 78 of the town’s population of 250 people. Using bark canoes, four local Aboriginal men, including Yarri, Jacky Jacky, and Long Jimmy, saved somewhere between 40 and 68 people. They were minimally recognised at the time, but, finally, in 2017 (2017!), a bronze sculpture of Yarri and Jacky Jacky, with canoe, was unveiled in Gundagai. Heiss’ novel concerns the life of a young Wiradjuri woman, Wagadhaany, the imagined daughter of Yarri.

    The novel is told, like many historical novels, chronologically, but it starts with a Prologue set in 1838, some 14 years before the main narrative starts. This prologue is important. It introduces Wagadhaany who, as a 4-year-old, is with her babiin, Yarri, as he tells a “White man” that the place they are standing on is “not a good place to live, Boss, too flat”, that it’s a “flood area”. Of course, the White man ignores this local knowledge and so the stage is set for 1852 when the devastating flood comes. By this time, Wagadhaany, now 18, is working as a servant for that very White man, Henry Bradley.

    The flood and its immediate aftermath occupy the first five chapters of this 29-chapter novel. Only two sons of the Bradley family of six survive, along with Wagadhaany. The rest of the novel follows their lives over the next couple of decades, showing how little the White settlers learnt from the experience – practically, in terms of how to live on the land, and morally, in terms of their behaviour to the true owners of the country. Wagadhaany, who is bound, she is told, by the Master and Servants Act of 1840, has no agency in such a world.

    “a witness without a voice”

    Into this situation comes the young Quaker widow, Louisa, who, like the Bradley men, lost her family in the floods. I was surprised by the appearance of a Quaker, but Heiss also explains in her Note that there were Quakers in early colonial Australia, and they were interested in “the treatment of the convicts and the Aborigines”.

    Louisa is an interesting character because she tries to treat Wagadhaany well. She calls her by her actual name, rather than Wilma, as James Bradley does; she works alongside her in the kitchen and garden; she gives her a bedroom in the house; and she converses with Wagadhaany as a friend. But, she has her blind-spots. She is oblivious to Wagadhaany’s lack of agency over her life, to the fact that, when the Bradleys (now including Louisa), move to Wagga Wagga, she thoughtlessly over-rides Wagadhaany’s wish to stay in the Gundagai area where her family is.

    As the novel progresses, Wagadhaany’s homesickness for her family, and her country, increases. We are privy to Wagadhanny’s thoughts, to her awareness that there are limits – albeit unconscious ones – to Louisa’s concept of equality. Louisa is, after all, a product of her time and her culture – and Wagadhaany notices that, for all their “equality”, it is Wagadhaany who does the hardest, dirtiest, heaviest jobs, and that she is not paid a wage.

    What the presence of Louisa does, though, is to add richness and nuance to the depiction of colonial society. She is a foil to the brutal, racist attitudes of James Bradley. She does not mitigate them but shows that his were not the only views around. Wagadhaany, on the other hand, tells it as it is from the First Nations’ perspective. In the early days after the flood, Heiss writes that Wagadhaany

    feels like a witness without a voice. She was there, she lived through the horror of the flood, the fear, the physical exhaustion, the loss of those she knew. But no-one asks how she is, what she thinks or knows, or how she feels.

    For all Louisa’s kindness, there is much Wagadhaany feels she can’t say, and so throughout the story she continues as a silent witness. Here she is reflecting on Louisa and work:

    She wondered why Louisa had to be protected from hard work but the Wiradyuri women didn’t. And she wondered if that thought ever crossed Louisa’s mind, because that made them different, unequal …

    Gradually, though, she starts to stand up for herself:

    “I know I will have to work for you, I know about the masters and servants law, but you cannot keep me living here in the homestead against my will if you honestly believe I am your equal and that I should be as free as you”.

    And Louisa, to her credit, “lets” her live with the river family.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray has strong characters, but it is also a genre novel with a strong plot, including of course, romance. I don’t want to spoil what is a good page-turning story, so I will leave the story here.

    Heiss has several novels under her belt now. She knows how to tell a good story, and she is also very clear about her message. She uses her fiction to show what she wants the rest of us to know. In this novel, it’s the way First Nations people lived, the way they tried to work with the settlers, and the way they were gradually pushed off their land. She also, through Louisa, forces us to confront what really is being “a good White person”. So, not only does the novel tell some truths about Australia’s settler history but it is also immediately relevant to today.

    In this novel, Heiss also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, incorporates language into the writing. There is a glossary at the back, but you rarely need it because most words are self-explanatory in context. Seeing “our” nation’s words in Australian literature is a truly exciting development.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray isn’t a perfect novel – and I struggled particularly with Louisa’s falling in love with the man she does. But this is a genre novel, and a bit of belief-stretching is allowed. The end result is a book that engages the reader with its strong protagonist in Wagadhaany, that wraps its vital messages in a compelling story, and, significantly, that ends authentically.

    Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) has also recommends this book.

    Anita Heiss is a Wiradyuri woman from NSW.

    Anita Heiss
    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray
    London: Simon & Schuster, 2021
    393pp.
    ISBN: 9781760850449

    Larissa Behrendt, After story (#BookReview)

    Larissa Behrendt’s latest novel After story has been on my wishlist since it came out last year, so I was thrilled when my reading group chose it as our 2022 NAIDOC-Week read. What self-respecting reader, after all, doesn’t like a literary tour?

    After story, for those who haven’t caught up with it yet, is framed around a ten-day literary tour of England that is undertaken by a First Nations Australian mother and daughter, Della and Jasmine, whose relationship is fraught. Through this plot device, Behrendt marries her two storytelling loves – English literature and Indigenous Australian storytelling. In doing so, she draws comparisons between them, and explores ways in which both can reflect on and enhance our lives. She also shows how travel can be an engine of change for people.

    Although it contains some very dark matter concerning grief and abuse, After story is a gentle and generous read – for two reasons. First, there’s the characters. Della and Jasmine, are strong, thoughtful and, importantly, real. Both have made mistakes in managing the challenges in their lives, but both genuinely want to have better relationships with those they love. Della, the less educated and more naive of the two, is particularly engaging for her honesty and lack of pretension, for her open-mindedness, and for the rawness of her pain. The other reason is the novel’s tone. It is clear and passionate about the wrongs done to Australia’s First Nations peoples but it is not angry. This is not to say that anger doesn’t have its place – it certainly does – but it’s not the only approach to telling the story of dispossession and dislocation.

    What is particularly striking about this book is its structure and voice. After a prologue in Della’s voice telling of the disappearance twenty-five years ago of her 7-year-old daughter Brittany, the novel is structured by the tour, with each day being told, in first person, by Della and then Jasmine, until Day 8, when Della’s built-up grief overcomes her. After that, the order changes and Jasmine goes first. This change marks a turning point in their relationship – albeit not an immediate, epiphanic one. It also jolts the narrative out of a pattern that had risked becoming a little too rigorous. Like a coda, it makes the reader sit up and wonder what will happen next?

    What does happen, however, as I’ve already implied, is not particularly dramatic. Rather, this book emulates something Virginia Woolf said, as Jasmine shares:

    The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

    Like life.

    But, back to the structure. After story is one of those books in which the structure mirrors or supports its intention – and Jasmine, again, explains it well. Talking about Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ response to it in Wide Sargasso Sea, she says, “it’s compelling, the uncovering of the other side of the story”. “Uncovering the other side of the story” is the nub of this novel – personally, in terms of Della, Jasmine, and their relationship with each other and the rest of their family, and politically, in terms of the conflicting views and experiences of the colonisers and colonised. What Behrendt aims for in this novel, I believe, is to bring people together through improved mutual understanding.

    Lest this sound too earnest, though, let me reiterate my earlier comment that this novel has a light touch. To balance the heavy material, which includes a number of losses including those related to abandoned and lost children, Behrendt creates a cast of typical tour participants. There’s the white male know-it-all professor and his seemingly mouse-like wife; the feminist young lesbian couple willing to take him on at every turn; the recently retired, educated middle-class couple; the bossy woman and her down-trodden sister; Della and Jasmine; and of course Lionel, the long-suffering tour guide, and bus-driver Brett. Behrendt handles these almost-stereotypical characters well, so that, by the end, even the arrogant Professor Finn is softened for us.

    There is much humour in the telling, such as this, for example, from Della as she enters the British Museum, which, she has just discovered, still holds Aboriginal remains:

    As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
    “We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

    Comments and asides like this are used throughout the novel to draw our attention to the truths we may not otherwise see. Truth, in fact, is a recurring idea in the novel – the withholding and the sharing. Della, reflecting on Thomas Hardy’s first wife being written out of history, remembers stories of erasure told by her community’s elder Aunty Elaine, and thinks “Sometimes the truth matters and you shouldn’t try to hide the facts”. A little later, Jasmine is also reminded of Aunty Elaine’s wisdom:

    Aunty Elaine would remind me that there is more than one way to tell a story; there can sometimes be more than one truth. ‘The silences are as important as the words,’ she’d often say. There is what’s not in the archive, not in the history books – those things that have been excluded hidden overlooked.

    Throughout the novel, Aunty Elaine’s stories and wisdom, shared through the memories of Della and Jasmine, provide the First Nations’ foil to the literary tour, sometimes enhancing, sometimes counteracting the messages and lessons of English literature.

    I did, however, have one issue with the novel, one shared by a few in my reading group. This concerned its occasional didactic tone. Frequently, for example, the characters tell us what they’d learnt at various sites, such as about Jane Austen’s life or Virginia Woolf’s death. While we could see the point, the way the information was imparted did feel teachy at times. Fortunately, this tone did not extend to the novel’s underpinning ideas which are conveyed through the narrative rather than “told”.

    In a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, Behrendt said something that appeals to me, which is that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important. In After story, she has written an engaging, accessible novel, that also says important things – some subtle, some more overt, but all stemming, ultimately, from the traumas First Nations people have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of the settlers.

    Jasmine comes to a significant realisation near the end:

    Suddenly I found the museum stuffy. When Aunty Elaine would talk about it, our culture felt alive – the sewing of possum cloaks … the gift of telling stories. They were living and breathing, not relics of the past, frozen in time. Looking at the artefacts surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I missed an opportunity with Aunty Elaine to capture her knowledge.

    She had, she continues, “rightly valued education” but she had also “taken Aunty Elaine and her knowledge for granted”.

    This is the call Behrendt makes in her novel. She wants both cultures given equal respect for what they can offer us. She knows the value of stories in bringing people together. Wouldn’t it be great if her story here achieved just that?

    Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman

    This book has been reviewed by several bloggers including Lisa, Brona and Kimbofo.

    Larissa Behrendt
    After story
    St Lucia: UQP, 2021
    307pp.
    ISBN: 9780702263316

    Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 3, redux)

    Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility

    I’ve called this post “Vol. 3, redux”, although it is my first post on volume 3. The reason is that for my Jane Austen group’s 2011 slow read of Sense and sensibility, I wrote posts on volumes 1 and 2, but not on volume 3 as I missed the meeting, and never did write up my own thoughts. This slow read, I have written up volume 1 (as “redux”), but I missed volume 2’s discussion, and again didn’t write up my thoughts. However, I did get to the volume 3 meeting and am naming my thoughts “redux” to match them up with the right re-read!

    Now, a quick recap … In my recent volume 1 post, I discussed various ideas that had captured my attention, such as the novel’s autobiographical aspects, “fond” mothers, and appearance. Most of these had fallen away for me by the time I got to volume 3, but one idea that I mentioned – goodness, compassion and kindness – did not…

    Triumph of kindness and generosity

    From the novel’s beginning, the virtues of kindness, benevolence, generosity, charity are pitted against greed and self-interest. It starts with the sisters’ brother, John Dashwood, doing essentially nothing for his sisters while a distant cousin, Sir John Middleton, offers them a home at a good rental and supports them in any way he can. The theme continues through volumes 2 and into volume 3 where even characters who had been seen, initially, as somewhat silly if not vulgar, like Mrs Jennings and Charlotte Palmer, show kindness and compassion. They show up favourably against the greed and self-interest of Fanny and John Dashwood, Lucy Steele, and Willoughby.

    Colonel Brandon is one of the characters whose kindness is evident from the start. Indeed, Elinor says to her mother near the end, that “his character does not rest … on one act of kindness”. A telling moment occurs when, in volume 3, he offers Edward Ferrars “a living”, after Edward’s own mother had disinherited him. The aforementioned John Dashwood finds this behaviour “improvident” and “astonishing” – and wonders why. Elinor responds, simply, that Colonel Brandon wanted “to be of use to Mr Ferrars”. That phrase, “to be of use”, conveys a sense of humility, of not wanting anything back, in his generosity.

    It’s surely ironic when a page later, John Dashwood accuses sister Elinor of “ignorance of human nature”.

    Mrs Jennings, too, who is described in the opening volume as “rather vulgar”, proves herself to be thoughtful and generous to Elinor and Marianne during their stay in her home in London. And when, in volume 3, Marianne falls seriously ill en-route home, Mrs Jennings

    with a kindness of heart which made Elinor really love her, declared her resolution of not during from Cleveland as long as Marianne remained ill, and of endeavouring by her own attentive care, to supply to her the place of the mother she had taken her from.

    Money is the root of …?

    Money is another idea that threads through the novel from beginning to end: it is the death of Mr Dashwood which results in Mrs Dashwood and her daughters finding themselves homeless and impecunious. As the novel progresses, characters are defined by their attitude to money. There are well-off characters who are avaricious, like the aforementioned John Dashwoods and Mrs Ferrars, and well-off characters who are generous, like Sir John Middleton, Colonel Brandon and Mrs Jennings.

    There are many in the novel, in fact, for whom money is so important they will sacrifice values like integrity and sincerity. Willoughby, in his confession to Elinor in Volume 3, admits

    My affection for Marianne, my thorough conviction of her attachment to me–it was all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty, or get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches …

    Of his rich fiancee, he says, “her money was necessary to me”.

    Lucy Steele is, of course, the epitome of someone who schemes and manipulates for money, with little regard for the feelings of others. In the end, despite all her protestations of love, she is not willing to settle for the secure, if not rich, life that Elinor eventually has.

    But what is it really all about?

    As with all of Austen’s novels, what Sense and sensibility is about has been discussed and analysed and critiqued from literary, socioeconomic, feminist, historical, you-name-it perspectives. And, really, there is no one thing it is about. That is the joy and value of Austen. What she writes about, fundamentally, is people, and how we read her changes with our own experiences of life.

    So here is where I am today. When I first read Sense and sensibility in my teens, I loved it. It was so romantic. Elinor gets her man, and is happy to live the life of an honest but not particularly well-off minister’s wife. Her sweet but overly romantic, emotional sister, gets the rich man. While that never seemed quite fair to me, as happily-ever-after stories go, I accepted it because it just showed what a person of integrity Elinor truly was. Love and esteem for an honest man were what made her happy.

    And yet … what is Austen saying to us? Why do some of her heroines end up with less than dashing heroes? Well, I think it is partly because she was an early, if not the first, great novelist of realism. From this, her very first novel, she provides us with a microcosm of humanity. Like her later novels, Sense and sensibility is populated with flawed characters who represent complex humanity, unlike her Gothic and Sentimental novelist predecessors who tended to present the world in more morally absolutist, black-and-white terms. Not so Austen. Mrs Jennings might be “rather vulgar”, and a bit of an interfering gossip, but her heart is large and she’s generous. Mr Palmer, who seems cold and distant when first met away from home, shows himself to be kind and generous when a crisis occurs. And so on. Even Willoughby, despite his “selfish vanity”, is redeemed a little by his confession, and Austen allows him a reasonable life after all. I now see this confession as not being “clunky” as I’d once thought, but as important to Austen’s mission of portraying life.

    But, back to Marianne. There was something that I noticed on this read that I’d never noticed before, and that concerned Marianne and her marriage to Colonel Brandon. One of the reasons I have always loved Sense and sensibility is for this quote:

    Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.

    I so related to this – to the idea of proclaiming opinions before experience teaches us otherwise – that I hadn’t really seen the preceding paragraph, which concerns Marianne’s mother explicitly matchmaking Marianne with Colonel Brandon:

    It was now her darling object. Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give up its constant enjoyment to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor. They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.

    “The reward of all”. This sounds a bit suss! Austen continues …

    With such a confederacy against her–with a knowledge so intimate of his goodness–with a conviction of his fond attachment to herself, which at last, though long after it was observable to everybody else–burst on her–what could she do?

    And so, Marianne does come around to loving this good, kind man as Austen makes clearer a couple of paragraphs further on:

    Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.

    The point, then, is that Sense and sensibility is not Romance with a capital-R, but a story about love – Elinor’s, from the start, and Marianne’s, eventually – that is based on genuine feeling combined with appreciation of the personal values that make a person worth loving.

    There is so much more to this book but I’ll leave it here because I feel that, for now, I understand what it really is about!

    Nigel Featherstone, My heart is a little wild thing (#BookReview)

    In late May, I reported on the Canberra launch of Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing – and now I bring you my thoughts on this finely-observed book about a man’s reaching for his own life.

    I’m going to start with a reflection on a question authors of books like this commonly get, which is, is the book autobiographical? In his launch, Nigel said that the book is not about him, but that things in his life – particularly the death of his mother – did inspire him. The book’s protagonist Patrick is clearly not Nigel, as those who have followed Nigel through his various social media accounts will know. Nigel, unlike the semi-closeted Patrick, has been in a committed relationship for over two decades, and Nigel, unlike Patrick, broke away from home and did forge his own life. At the launch, Nigel said that this book explores what his life might have looked like had he “obeyed his mother”, who didn’t want him to be a writer or to love men.

    This novel then, is not his life, but it nonetheless draws on much from his life. For example, like Patrick, Nigel grew up in upper North Shore Sydney and frequented that city’s northern beaches. I enjoyed this because I spent my teen years in the same area, albeit a decade or so ahead of Nigel. I am also familiar with the other two main settings in the novel, the Southern Highlands and the Monaro, and am drawn to both, as I know Nigel is. Like Nigel’s Patrick, I do not really know why I so love the Monaro except, perhaps, because the favourite landscapes of my childhood were those wide open plains of outback Queensland. There is something captivating about them, even though, as Patrick, somewhat prophetically, writes of the Monaro,

    It was all wide-screen barrenness, the only embellishment the fence lines, which cut across the tussocky landscape like tripwires.

    Patrick shares other interests with Nigel, particularly music. Again, if you follow Nigel, you will know how important it is to him. He has, in fact, composed his own song-cycle. So, when he describes the music created by Lewis, the man Patrick meets, these descriptions, too, feel authentic.

    But, despite all these similarities which ground the book so well in lived experience, Patrick is clearly not Nigel. As I listened to Nigel speak at the launch, and as I read the book, I was reminded of a favourite quote from Marion Halligan’s wise novel, Fog garden. The narrator writes about her character Clare:

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

    And this, too, is Patrick.

    “a fence I had crossed”

    My heart is a little wild thing starts dramatically with Patrick heading off from Bundanoon to the Monaro in a distressed state the day after he’d “tried to kill his mother”. The actuality isn’t quite as bad as it sounds but Patrick, in his mid-40s, had been pushed to the limit by his demanding mother for whom, of her three children, he had pretty much sole responsibility. He needed out, a break, and so after the incident referred to in the opening paragraph, he drives to a steading (or barn) on a place called Jimenbuen, where he had spent many happy family holidays as a child.

    Nigel explained at the launch that Jimenbuen is based on a little heritage-listed barn in Bobundra, on the Monaro near the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. It was when staying there that Nigel’s book finally took shape, and it is at Jimenbuen that Patrick finally takes a step towards a new life, when he decides to offer to help a man he has spied planting trees on the other side of the fence. That man is Lewis, and the rest, as they say, is history – except, of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that, because the course of true love rarely runs smooth, in fiction or in life.

    However, we follow Patrick as he experiences real love for the first time in his life, and we continue to watch as Lewis returns to his life in Ireland while Patrick returns to his mother. How will it all resolve? That is not for me to share here.

    The novel is about many things, but an overriding idea is that of freedom. It is signalled on the third page of the novel when, en route to Jimenbuen, Patrick describes the “odd choices” he’d made of CDs for the trip. “Perhaps”, he wonders, “they reminded me of a time when I felt free”. Three pages further on, Patrick explains that, prior to the incident, he had been planning a short getaway to Sydney, because it was a place where he “could be free”. The idea of freedom recurs throughout the novel. Nearly two-thirds through, he remembers a past conversation with his father, who had told him, “We must live our own lives”. Patrick, at the time, doesn’t fully understand this, fearing it’s “selfish”. And yet, intriguingly, near the end of the novel, Lewis tells Patrick about having seen him, when they were still boys, at a waterhole. Given how Patrick’s life had proceeded, it’s ironic, but Lewis says:

    I saw you as neither male nor female, just someone who looked free. I can’t think of anyone more attractive than a person who knows how to be free, and who’s taken risks to be free.

    Related to this idea of freedom are those of happiness and living life fully, all of which are encompassed in the novel’s epigraph, Verlaine’s “To live again, undying”. Through Patrick, Nigel explores just what this means – the balances, compromises, and the lines we need to draw every day to live good but true lives.

    The novel explores other ideas too, including ageing, and the responsibility of children for caring for ageing parents. Nigel makes clear that this is not a one-way street. Parents need to meet their children half-way. They need to recognise that no matter how loving or dutiful their child is, that child also deserves respect and to be able live their lives. A balance must be struck. Patrick, we see, gives and gives and gives to his mother, and receives little in return.

    Ultimately though, the book is about the power of love and friendship, something that is subtly underpinned by references to a favourite novel that Patrick rediscovers at Jimenbuen. The novel is – and some of you will also surely know and love it – Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, about a damaged man and the love he finds and expresses.

    During the book’s launch, Nigel talked about the value of fearless writing, which he also wrote about in his essay on Christos Tsiolkas (my post). It’s about being audacious and true – to yourself, your characters and your writing. Nigel has achieved that here, particularly in the way he explores, explicitly but sensitively, the complicated relationship between sensuality and sexuality, love and desire as Patrick reaches for the life that will sustain him.

    My heart is a little wild thing is another of Nigel’s warm-hearted, character-focused books that deal with the complexity of family and relationships, and how we live our lives. The heart might be a little wild thing, but this book is a little beautiful thing – and not so little at that.

    Nigel Featherstone
    My heart is a little wild thing
    Gadigal Country/Ultimo: Ultimo Press, 2022
    282pp.
    ISBN: 9781761150135

    Stephen Orr, Sincerely, Ethel Malley (#bookreview)

    Like Lisa, I’m a Stephen Orr fan, but for some reason it took me forever to finish his latest book, Sincerely, Ethel Malley, partly I think because while its characters are engaging, it’s a novel that deserves concentration which I seem to have in shorter supply this year. This is not meant to discourage readers, because it’s a fascinating, and wryly humorous read that explores a range of issues, to do with art and society, against a backdrop of war-time 1940s Australia.

    As those who know the story will have guessed, Orr’s novel takes as its starting point the infamous Ern Malley literary hoax. To summarise Wikipedia, this hoax was perpetrated by two conservative writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who created modernist-style poetry in the name of a fictitious poet, Ern Malley. They wrote the poems using random words from various reference books and rhyming dictionaries, and, in 1943 sent them, in the name of Ern’s sister Ethel, to Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins, the journal of a modernist art and literary movement. This movement included some of the leading lights of the Heide art group, which was the inspiration for Emilly Bitto’s novel, The strays (my review). They were modern, confident, and prepared to tackle head on conservative Australia. It wasn’t long before the hoax was exposed, but that wasn’t the end of it, because Max Harris was then tried for publishing the poems, on the grounds of obscene content.

    I have written about literary hoaxes earlier in this blog, and made some points about what hoaxes tell us. Among these are that they raise some fundamental issues for readers and critics about the nature of literature, about what we mean by authenticity and how we define quality. Is a work, for example, somehow less “authentic” and of less literary quality because the author isn’t who we believe s/he is? In other words, is the work the thing? These are some of the issues Orr explores in Sincerely, Ethel Malley.

    The novel’s intent is also suggested by the four epigraphs, the first of which – with its own in-joke – is “ascribed” to Aeschylus. It suggests that Prometheus is the source of “every art possessed by man”, so, perhaps, why worry about anything but the art? Then there’s Frederick R. Ewing’s suggestion that the problem occurs from a misunderstanding over where “the truth left off and imagination began” – which, in a way, is the idea underpinning this book. The third comes from Max Harris arguing, essentially, against “playing god”. And finally, there’s Donald Crowhurst’s “it is the mercy”. I’ve never heard of Crowhurst but, according to Wikipedia, he was an amateur sailor who disappeared during a race. Wikipedia says that this statement, which he left behind “is obscure, [but] most commentators have accepted that it signifies his relief that, at last, he is leaving an unbearable situation”.

    All this will tell you that Stephen Orr has big ideas in his sights. Fortunately for us, they are wrapped up in the engaging character of Ethel. She carries the novel. It starts in 1981, with her death, and then flashes back to 1943, which begins the main body of the novel and tells the story of Ern and his poems from Ethel’s (first-person) point-of-view. The novel’s last chapter returns to 1981, with Max hearing about Ethel’s death. Ethel (and Ern) are Sydney-based – which is where McAuley and Stewart were based – but most of the action takes place in Adelaide, where Max Harris was based.

    In the 1970s, Adelaide was a beacon of progressive thought in Australia, but back in the 1940s it was a very different place. Orr is South Australian and captures the ambience of the place and time beautifully, as our Sydney-suburban housewife, Ethel, makes her way between the iconoclastic Max, the lively bookseller Mary Martin, and Adelaide’s conservative establishment.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the explorations – many of them done with wit if not downright cheek – about truth and authenticity, about poetry not being meant to be understood but to be “interpreted”, and about the art versus the artist. It’s subversive in self-consciously confronting some of the things we say and think about art and literature. It tackles conservatism, our resistance to innovation – “Originality. If your writing’s worthwhile, most people will hate it”, Max tells Ethel. Early in the novel is a discussion within Harris’ theatre group about what play they will perform, one by Shaw or one by Cocteau. Most of the players argue that people won’t come to Cocteau, because they “want a story”. For boundary-pushing Max, “that’s their problem”. He wants to do something “modern” (hence, also, his interest in Ern). This dilemma is not confined to 1940s Adelaide, but is one arts communities grapple with constantly. What will audiences tolerate?

    Orr’s skill is in presenting his “big” issues through “authentic”, engaging characters and strong narratives which draw us into their reality. Orr’s characters are always warm and authentic (even when fictionalising an already made-up person like Ethel) and his dialogue is so natural. The story of Ethel as she struggles to prove that Ern is real, and his poetry not obscene, is entertaining – particularly when people start questioning her existence too. It can get mind-bending some times, and quite rollicking other times, as Ethel flips between present and past, but it works.

    All of this is in the service of issues Orr thinks are worth thinking about, but it’s the thinking and the questions that are, in the end, more important than the answers, with Ethel, of course, being our guide. Early on, she’s never heard of Sid Nolan, but by the end she can hold her own with the best of them as she struggles to defend herself, Ern and his art against those who question. It’s both heartfelt and funny.

    There is a lot to this book, but fundamentally, I see it as being about conservatism. In addition to the whole modernist poetry debate, Orr makes pointed comments along the way about the press and academia, not to mention Australians themselves. Ethel tells Sid Nolan, she’s learnt that “Australians hate anyone who claims to be creative”. In Sincerely, Ethel Malley, Orr is teasing us, goading us even, into being open to new ways of seeing, just as Max Harris wanted to do in the 1940s – and he has done so with his usual skill combined with a good dose of fun.

    Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book and covered its essence very well.

    Stephen Orr
    Sincerely, Ethel Malley
    Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2021
    441pp.
    ISBN: 9781743058084

    Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.

    Damon Galgut, The promise (#BookReview)

    Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize winning novel, The promise, is one of those novels that grabbed me intellectually and emotionally from its opening pages. The plot, itself, is straighforward. It concerns a White South African family’s promise to give a house on their property to their Black maid, whom their grandfather had acquired “along with the land”. The narrative tracks just how hard it is for the family to honour this promise. What makes the novel a Booker-Prize winner is the quality of the writing and how Galgut uses his story to create a potted history of South African life and politics in the post-Apartheid decades.

    The novel is set between 1986 and 2018, and centres on the family, and their farm outside Pretoria. The family comprises Ma, Pa, and their three children, Astrid, Anton and Amor. In the opening pages, the youngest family member, Amor, overhears her dying Jewish mother extract the aforementioned promise from her Afrikaner father to give the house to Salome. Amor wants this promise honoured but achieving it turns out to be much harder than she expected.

    The promise was my reading group’s May read and, somewhat unusually for us, it was universally enjoyed. Our ex-South African member used words like sharp, clever, funny, vicious, and said that Galgut nails the South Africa she knew and had experienced.

    “something out of true at its centre”

    There is so much to say about this book, that it’s hard to know where to start, but the writing is an excellent place, because it truly carries the novel. Particularly effective is the slippery voice (or point-of-view) which shifts perspective and person, sometimes mid-sentence. The effect, among other things, is to implicate us readers in the narrative. It prevents us distancing ourselves from the choices, decisions and behaviours we see. Here, for example, we shift from third to first in a paragraph:

    For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family  … We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.

    And here is a mid-sentence shift from third to second person:

    But in truth he’s bored by this man, by his ordinary life and his ordinary wife, just as he’s bored by almost everything these days, all significance leaked away by now, and it doesn’t feel wrong to wait till he’s gone, then get up and wander out into the night, as if you’ve been drinking on your own. You probably have.

    Alongside the voice is Galgut’s wordplay, his recognition of the power of words to clarify or obfuscate. Take the irony of the white family’s name, Swart, which means black. But it doesn’t stop there because it is also an archaic word for “baneful, malignant”. Take also the narrator’s frequent self-corrections that always nail home a point, like:

    “So Salome has gone back to her own house instead, beg your pardon, to the Lombard place.” (Which reminds us that the promise has not been enacted.)

    “He no longer calls himself dominee, he’s a pastoor these days, peddling a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits.” (Which tells us something about this man of the church’s real motivations.)

    Then there’s the idea of promise itself. What a loaded word that is. While this is the story of a family, The promise is ultimately a political novel, so Galgut deftly plays with the idea of “promise” in more ways than one. The novel opens and closes with false promises, related to the historical realities of 1986 and 2018, as well as to the family’s inaction. It also teases us with the idea that the end of Apartheid would bring the promise of a new South Africa, but it shows that ideal foundering. The failure of the country to live up to its promise is paralleled in the character of Anton who, at the beginning of the novel, is “full of promise”, as he describes himself in his unfinished autobiographical novel, but who, by the end, admits that he has not lived up to it:

    He’s still stunned by the simple realisation that’s just struck. It’s true, I’ve wasted my life. Fifty years old, half a century, and he’s never going to do any of the things he was once certain he would do … Not ever going to do much of anything.

    (Note the slip from third to first to third person, here!) There are many failed promises in the novel, including a minister’s failure to keep a confession.

    Other motifs threading through the novel include the four funerals in four different religions/belief systems that shape the narrative’s four parts, and the fact that the Swart’s family business is a (failing) Reptile Park. How telling is that! Just think of all the allusions.

    The characters are another compelling aspect of the novel. As an epigraph-lover, I can’t resist sharing Galgut’s from Frederico Fellini:

    This morning I met a woman with a golden nose. She was riding in a Cadillac with a monkey in her arms. Her driver stopped and she asked me, ‘Are you Fellini?’ With this metallic voice she continued, ‘Why is it that in your movies, there is not even one normal person?’

    What a hoot, and what a great epigraph choice. It immediately challenges us to consider what is “normal”, if such exists, and puts us on the alert about notions of normality. Galgut’s characters – even the minor ones like Lexington the driver (who “brings the Triumph to the front steps”), the homeless man (“as he keeps obsessively singing the first line to Blowin’ in the wind, let’s call him Bob”), and the various funeral workers – are carefully differentiated, and add depth to the picture being painted of a family and country in crisis. The irony is, I think, that each is disconcertingly normal – in their own way!

    Early in the novel, the narrator describes the recently departed Ma’s spirit lingering around the house:

    She looks real, which is to say, ordinary. How would you know she is a ghost? Many of the living are vague and adrift too, it’s not a failing unique to the departed.

    “Vague and adrift” perfectly describes Astrid, Anton and Amor, none of whom have it together. The “quiet and attentive” Amor, however, is at least empathetic, and therefore the most sympathetic. She constantly shows heart, but, having little power in the family, her solution is to disappear at every opportunity, and live a spartan life, working as a nurse among the most needy. Could she have done more sooner?, is the question worth asking.

    So, what is the takeaway from this novel? My reading group was unanimous in feeling that the novel is underpinned by the idea that when one group has an unhealthy position of power over another, both are diminished, if not destroyed. It is to Galgut’s credit, however, that he explores this without didacticism. We are never told what to think. Instead, he presents his characters’ thoughts, actions and decisions, and leaves us to consider what it all means.

    We are also given this:

    No truthful answers without cold questions. And no knowledge without truth.

    The wonder of this book is that such a strong and serious story can be so exciting to read.

    Lisa also loved it.

    Damon Galgut
    The promise
    Vintage, 2021
    295pp.
    ISBN: 9781473584464 (Kindle ed.)

    Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility (Vol. 1, redux)

    Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility

    In 2011, my Jane Austen group started a slow read of her novels in chronological order of publication, which meant that we started with the 1811-published Sense and sensibility. By slow read, we meant that each month we’d read a volume of the chosen novel, given most novels in those times were published in three volumes, and discuss just that volume to see what new ideas or insights we might have. We finished the project in 2017. Having spent the last five years looking at other works by Austen (like her Juvenilia) and exploring other topics relevant to her, we decided last year that it was time to “do” the novels again. So, once again, we’ve started with the first one.

    For some of you, this will seem very dry, but for those of us who love Austen, there is much to be gained from these slow reads. If you are interested in what I wrote last time on volume one, check out the post, but here I’m sharing what thoughts popped up for me this time.

    First though, I’ll repeat the caveats from 2011. I’m assuming that most readers who come to this post will know the plot. (If you don’t, Wikipedia provides a good summary.) Also, this is not a formal review but simply a sharing of some of the ideas that struck me during this slow reading.

    Slow reading of Volume 1

    I have always liked Sense and sensibility, while my dear Mum thought it one of her weakest. (There’s no accounting for tastes! In my group there are many who will never forget that Mum loved Northanger Abbey, which some of them don’t like much at all.)

    Anyhow, here goes. It’s fascinating how each read of an Austen book focuses the mind on something different. That’s the richness of Austen, and what makes her a true classic. In my last slow read, my first-volume thoughts focused particularly on the idea of judgement, and money and income. This time, other ideas came to the fore for me, some partly affected, I think, by current concerns.

    Autobiographical first novel?

    But first, an idea I hadn’t fully thought through before was that it could be seen as a “typical” first novel, by which I mean, it has strong autobiographical elements. Anyone who knows Austen always think of this novel’s basic set-up of in terms of her life: the fact that Austen, her mother and sister, lost their home on the death of their husband/father, and had to wait for the kindness of relations to come to their aid, just as happens to the Dashwoods. However, on this reading, I realised there were other autobiographical elements. Others in the group had come to the same conclusion, and yet none of us had discussed this last time. Curious.

    So, for example, our two sisters, the younger musical Marianne and the older artistic Elinor mirror musical Jane and her artist sister Cassandra. Moreover, Jane, we believe, was lively, like Marianne, compared with her more sober older sister. If Austen did draw on herself for Marianne, however, she’s gorgeously self-deprecating – though she does present Marianne as over-enthusiastic and excitable but fundamentally sound. There are several other elements we could point to from Austen’s biography, including her flirtation with Tom Lefroy being reflected in Marianne’s with Willoughby. They are very different men, but both men are whisked away by relations from the attractive but unsuitable, ie not-rich-enough, girl.

    Appearances deceive?

    Perhaps partly because I’ve been listening to ABC RN’s Face Value series, I seemed to be particularly alert to the many references to appearance. Admittedly, Austen describes appearance in all her novels, but it felt pointed here in a way that I don’t recollect seeing in later novels.

    So, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are both described as not handsome, but both are appealing for their good understanding and interested attention in others. Willoughby, on the other hand, is described differently. When he appears on the scene, having rescued Marianne from her fall in the rain, Austen says that Mrs Dashwood would have would have been grateful had he been ”old, ugly, and vulgar”, but his “youth, beauty, and elegance” gave him added interest.

    As for the women, Sir John Middleton and Charlotte Palmer talk of Elinor and Marianne as being pretty and therefore marriageable, while Lucy Steele is seen by the perceptive Elinor to have “beauty” but to “want … real elegance and artlessness”. And then there’s Mr Palmer who, just like Pride and prejudice’s Mr Bennet, had chosen his wife Charlotte for her beauty not her sense. Beauty, Austen seems to be saying, is something we should not give undue credit to.

    Fond mothers?

    Another issue which caught my attention this time around concerned mothers and mothering. Mothering (poor or lack of) features in many of Austen’s novels. Lizzie Bennet’s mother (Pride and prejudice) is silly; Emma (Emma) and Anne (Persuasion) don’t have a mother; Fanny’s (Mansfield Park) is too busy; and Catherine’s (Northanger Abbey) is away from her at a critical time. By contrast, Sense and sensibility has several active and involved, though not necessarily great, mothers, from the loving, hands-off Mrs Dashwood to the ultimate controller in Mrs Ferrars.

    Very early on Mrs Dashwood’s style of mothering is described and Mrs Ferrars’ is hinted at, in relation to the apparent growing attraction between Elinor and Edward.

    Some mothers might have encouraged intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except for a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality.

    Mrs Dashwood, who is probably the most present mother in Austen, is loving but not always wise. When Marianne falls into excessive despair at Willoughby’s sudden, unexplained departure, Elinor suggests she ask Marianne directly about her relationship with Willoughby. Mrs Dashwood replies that she “would not ask such a question for the world … I should never deserve her confidence again … I would not attempt to force the confidence of any one”. Elinor disagrees, seeing “this generosity overstrained, considering her sister’s youth … [but] … common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs Dashwood’s romantic delicacy”.

    However, Mrs Dashwood does provide good “maternal” advice to Edward, suggesting that finding some useful employment would help him be “a happier man”. She then mentions his mother:

    Your mother will secure to you, in time, that independence you are so anxious for; it is her duty, and it will, it must, ere long become her happiness to prevent your whole youth from being wasted in discontent.

    We haven’t met Mrs Ferrars at this point in the novel, but earlier references to her have not suggested a particularly loving or even dutiful mother. If Mrs Ferrars is one matriarch in the the novel, Mrs Jennings is another. Austen tells us that “She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world”. She comes across in Volume 1, as gossipy, “vulgar”, but good-natured. Without second-guessing the next volume, let’s say that I think she warms as a motherly character then!

    Her younger daughter, Charlotte Palmer is pregnant, but the older one, Lady Middleton, is the mother of three young children. She is the “fond mother” who “will swallow anything”. Her very existence depends on her role – she only comes to life when her children are around – and the shrewd Steele girls take advantage of this.

    For Austen readers, the issue of mothers in Austen’s novels is a loaded one. Why are there so few sensible mothers in her novels? There is much we don’t know about Austen’s life, and one of the mysteries concerns her relationship with her mother. Some Austen researchers believe it was prickly. We’ll never know, but great mothers are rare in her novels – which may or may not tell us something .

    And …

    Other issues that grabbed my attention included the many references to goodness, compassion and kindness, and, not surprisingly, to sense and sensibility (which I briefly discussed in my previous volume 1 post).

    Goodness appears on page 1, when we are told that Mr and Mrs Dashwood had shown “goodness of heart” to the uncle from whom they had inherited Norland, the estate that Mrs Dashwood must leave after her husband dies. As the volume progresses, Marianne talks of Edward’s “goodness and sense”; Sir John Middleton is described as being of “good heart”; and Colonel Brandon as having a “good nature”. These are not just words. Sir John’s “good heart” translates into real and practical kindness to the Dashwoods, and Edward values the “kindness” of the Dashwood family “beyond anything”.

    I won’t continue because we’ll have to see how or whether these issues remain to the fore as I read on, or whether others will raise their heads. Instead, I’ll close one one of those insights that I love reading Austen for. It’s on Mrs Dashwood not being prepared to consider the tough possibilities (in this case concerning Marianne and Willoughby):

    But Mrs Dashwood could find explanations whenever she wanted them, which at least satisfied herself.

    How often do we justify things to ourselves that we’d be better not to? Mrs Dashwood isn’t alone I think. (Or, do I speak only for myself?)

    Roll on volume 2.