World Bee Day 2018 – and literature

Apparently today, May 20, is World Bee Day! Who knew? Not me, until this morning. I understand it was designated last December by the United Nations, on the recommendation of Slovenia. Given the rise of cli-fi literature and the importance of bees to our planet, I’ve decided to give a little shout out to our fabulous bees today.

Actually, I’m not a huge fan of honey. I love the idea of it – of all those exciting flavours you see – but if I can choose between honey and maple syrup, it’s maple syrup I take, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, bees aren’t just about the honey, as I’m sure you know. They are critical to our planet for their busy little pollination activity. The World Bee Day website says that bees and other pollinators pollinate “nearly three quarters of the plants that produce 90% of the world’s food” and that “a third of the world’s food production depends on bees.” In addition, their pollination activity is critical for ecological balance and diversity, so much so that their presence, absence or quantity is a significant indicator of the health of our environment. In other words, we need bees … but they are  are in decline, due to a combination of factors including pesticides, climate change and disease. Hence World Bee Day.

Bill McKibben, Oil and HoneyBack in 2013 I read and reviewed American climate activist Bill McKibben’s book, Oil and honey: the education of an unlikely activist. It’s about the two important things in his life: bees, honey and good farming practice, and oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. They’re all related.

However, that’s a work of non-fiction, but increasingly fiction is dealing with climate-change, resulting in the genre called cli-fi (ie climate change fiction.) I’ve reviewed some cli-fi here, but none focussing on bees, so this post is as much for my benefit as yours. (This is why I love blogging – I get to research something I’m interested in and then share it with anyone who is interested.)

So, here is a small selection, in alphabetical order by author.

James Bradley, Clade (2015)

James Bradley, CladeAustralian author James Bradley’s book Clade is more broadly about climate change than the other books in my selection here, but it does have bees on its cover. Sydney Morning Herald reviewer, Caroline Baum describes it as follows: “A global deadly virus, the collapse of bee colonies, extreme weather events causing social unrest, eco-refugees, infertility, autism and new advances in technology – these are just some of the themes of James Bradley’s new novel, Clade.” The bees, I understand, mainly feature in a sub-story about a refugee beekeeper who is concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder. However, this sub-story and the presence of bees on the cover suggest their importance to Bradley’s overall theme.

Moya Lunde, The history of bees (English ed. 2017)

Maja Lunde, The history of beesThe Saturday Paper’s reviewer, KN, describing Norwegian author Lunde’s The history of bees as presenting “an original angle” in the cli-fi realm, says that “the dystopian future she depicts hinges on the disappearance of bees from their hives. This is a real-world phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, diagnosed as a problem in 2006.” As The Atlantic’s reviewer writes, its premise is simple: what would happen if bees disappeared? The book apparently has three strands – one contemporary, one set in the 19th century, and one in 2098 after “The Collapse”.

I learnt a new term researching this – First Impact FictionLA Times reviewer Ellie Robins says it was coined by novelist Ashley Shelby to describe “fiction set in more or less the present day, which depicts ‘our shared world as the impacts of runaway climate change begin to make themselves known’.”

Bren MacDibble, How to bee (2017)

Bren MacDibble, How to beeBren MacDibble is an Australian-based New Zealand born writer. How to bee is a children’s book, which has been shortlisted for multiple literary awards, including the 2108 CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers, the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Children’s Literature, the 2017 Aurealis Awards for Best Children’s Novel, and the 2017 Queensland Literary Awards, Griffith University Children’s Book Award. Decent cred, eh?

Publisher Allen & Unwin describes the plot:

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand.

Laline Paull, The bees (2014)

Laline Paula, BeesThe Guardian’s Gwyneth Jones describes British novelist Laline Paull’s The bees as “a debut dystopia set in a beehive, where one bee rebels against the totalitarian state.” It’s apparently a complex story, and Jones concludes her review by saying that “the crisis The Bees invokes is genuine, frightening and getting worse. Hive collapse disease remains a deadly real-life mystery …”

The Bees was Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015.

Now, the question is: can cli-fi help the cause of climate change? Well, coincidentally, a climate change research fellow, Sarah Perkins-Kilpatrick wrote about just that in The Conversation last year. She believes it can. “Through compelling storylines, dramatic visuals, and characters”, she says, cli-fi can make people “care about and individually connect to climate change” and thus “motivate them to seek out the scientific evidence for themselves.” She also argues – but of course this depends on the writer and the work – that cli-fi can deliver a message

of hope. That it is not, or will it be ever, too late to combat human-caused climate change.

Is all cli-fi hopeful?

Do you like cli-fi? And, do you agree that cli-fi can help the cause (assuming, of course, that you agree it is a cause)?

Catherine McKinnon, Storyland (#BookReview)

Catherine McKinnon, StorylandIt is still somewhat controversial for non-indigenous Australian authors to include indigenous characters and concerns in their fiction, as Catherine McKinnon does in Storyland. But there are good arguments for their doing so. One is that not including indigenous characters continues the dispossession that started with white settlement. Another is that such fiction brings indigenous characters and stories to people who may not read indigenous authors, which is surely a good thing?

However, such writing requires sensitivity, or empathy, on the part of non-indigenous writers. Indigenous author, Jeanine Leane says that this can only be achieved by social and cultural immersion (which can include informed reading of indigenous writing). McKinnon addresses this in a couple of ways. In her author’s note, she refers to discussing “stories and ownership” with local Illawarra region poet and elder, Aunty Barbara Nicholson, which resulted, for example, in her telling a brutal story from the convict perpetrator’s point of view rather than from the indigenous victim’s. She also acknowledges Nicholson “for reading, local knowledge and generous advice both early on in the process and nearing completion”. But now let’s get to the reason for all this …

Storyland is set in the Illawarra region south of Sydney, and tells the story of the Australian continent, post-white settlement, from 1796 to 2717. It has a nine-part narrative arc that takes us through five characters and six time periods: Will Martin 1796, Hawker 1822, Lola 1900, Bel 1998, and Nada 2033 and 2717. These form the first five parts of the novel. The final four parts return through Bel, Lola, Hawker, finishing with Will Martin, each picking up its character’s story where it had been left first time around. Got it? Two of these characters – Will and Hawker – are based on historical figures, while the rest are fictional.

… a tricksy plot

Will’s employer, the explorer George Bass, says early on that “the land is a book, waiting to be read”, and this, essentially, is what the book’s about. Will is a 15-year-old who sailed with Flinders and Bass in 1796 on their search for a river south of Sydney. On their trip they meet “Indians” whom they fear might be cannibals. We leave them at a nervous moment in their encounter to move to 1822 where we meet the convict Hawker. He’s a hard man, who believes you need “a mind like flint and a gristly intent”. He has his eye on a young indigenous woman, but also on improving his future. From him, we jump again, this time to 1900 and young hardworking dairy-farmer Lola who lives with her half-sister and brother Mary and Abe, both of whom have indigenous blood. There is racism afoot, with a neighbouring farmer suspicious of Abe’s friendship with his teenage daughter Jewell. We leave this story, with Jewell having gone missing, to meet Bel in 1998.

Bel, the youngest of our protagonists at 10 years old, spends her summer rafting with two neighbourhood boys on a lagoon that features in each of the stories. They befriend a couple, Ned and his indigenous girlfriend Kristie. Bel is a naive narrator, but adult readers quickly see the violence at the centre of this relationship. Meanwhile, down the road lives the slightly younger Nada, who is the pinnacle of our chronological arc, featuring in 2033 and 2717. In 2033, climate change has created havoc in the land, and a dystopia is playing out …

Country and connection

I hope this doesn’t sound too confusing – or fragmented – because in fact Storyland is a very accessible book. Superficially, it seems disjointed, but McKinnon connects the stories through links that gradually register as the narrative progresses. For example, the transitions between each story all feature birds, such as this one from Hawker to Lola:

The women are disappearing into the forest. And then they are gone. Lost in the dark trees. An owl


calling boo-book, boo-book.

(My html skills aren’t up to replicating the layout I’m afraid.) Other links include the aforementioned lagoon, a creek, a cave which most characters reference, a big old fig tree and an ancient stone-axe. None of these are forced, or feel out of place. Instead these places and objects naturally connect the stories, despite their very different narratives, to provide a continuity that transcends the people to focus on the land itself – because, ultimately, this is a story about the land and our ongoing relationship with it.

McKinnon, the author bio says, has been a theatre director and playwright, as well as a prose writer. This is evident in the voices (all first person) and dialogue which beautifully capture the rhythms, vocabulary and grammar of the different characters and their times. Will Martin talks of “Indians”, Hawker talks of “forest”, while turn-of-the-century farmer Lola uses structures like “Jewell and me carry buckets of skimmed milk” and “When he were done”. Ten-year-old Bel is language-proficient, with a good vocabulary, but she sees things through a ten-year-old’s eyes, such as this on the abused Kristie, who “has her big black sunglasses on” and “looks funny, her lips look bigger or something”.  (In a delightful in-joke, her father Jonathan is writing his PhD on unreliable narrators).

The real star of the novel, though, is the land. McKinnon traces its trajectory from an almost pristine state at the dawn of colonisation through being farmed by Hawker and Lola to climate-change-caused destruction in 2033 followed much later by a mysterious post-apocalyptic world. She similarly traces our relationship with indigenous people from early caution, uncertainty and tentative goodwill, through 19th century brutality and ongoing dispossession, to the continuing racism and exploitation of the twentieth century.

The question to ask here is why did McKinnon structure the story the way she did, starting and ending with 1796? Here is Will at the end, exploring a beach on his own:

The white sand curves around the land; the dunes in the late night are dark mountains and valleys; the forest behind is thick and green to the sky. This is a wild place. Too wild for civilisation. It is a place for adventure.

And “the water is fresh” to drink! Is McKinnon, by ending with this more idyllic picture of the land, suggesting that there’s still hope? This is how it was, this is what could happen. Does it have to? Can we yet turn it around? Well, yes, perhaps. As Uncle Ray says to Bel, “it’s our job to look after all this land around here. If we don’t, bad things can happen.”

“To dare is to do”, George Bass tells Will, and this is what McKinnon has done in Storyland. She has combined historical, contemporary and speculative fiction to tell us a story about our land – and our relationship with it and with the people who know it best. This land, these mountains, creeks, lagoons and trees, were here first, Uncle Ray says, and this makes us “part of their history, not the other way around.” The message is clear.

Storyland is a beautiful book physically – in cover, design and construction – as well as being a moving and relevant read. I dare you to read it today.

Bloggers Lisa (ANZlitLovers) and Bill (The Australian Legend) liked this book too.

aww2017 badgeCatherine McKinnon
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2017
ISBN: 9781460752326

(Review copy courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

Alice Robinson, Anchor point (Review)

Alice Robinson, Anchor PointI love it when the book I’m reading picks up ideas explored in my previous book. Alice Robinson’s debut novel Anchor point is, in reality, far removed from Mark Henshaw’s The snow kimono (my review), but the first line of Henshaw’s book – “There are times in your life when something happens after which you are never the same” – could have been Robinson’s first line. Her focus is more personal than Henshaw’s audacious broad sweep, but the point is still made with punch.

Another aspect of this novel that popped out for me is its rural focus. Rural romance is becoming popular here, but not much of our literary fiction focuses on the rural – on farm life, specifically, I mean. In this regard, it reminded me a little of Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review), though they are different books in terms of what drives them.

Have I intrigued you? I hope so, but it would probably help if I now told you a bit about it, rather than the books it reminded me of! The novel starts with a small family on a farm – ten-year-old Laura, five-year-old Vik, their artist-potter mother Kath, and farmer father Bruce. It’s clear there are tensions between the parents, and early in the novel Kath disappears. Interestingly, White’s novel also has a disappearance. Anyhow, young Laura, in a state of anger and shock, makes, as the book’s promos say, “an impulsive decision that will haunt her for decades”. Nonetheless, she fills the gap left – she mothers Vik, takes on the domestic duties, and helps her father on the farm. Robinson conveys beautifully the impact of on her – her pride in helping out, her exhaustion and loneliness, and her realisation of what she is missing. Her childhood, like that of a character in Henshaw’s The snow kimono, was “wrenched” from her. Late in the novel Laura reflects on “what she had lost, what she had cost herself”.

The novel is told third person, in a linear structure. It is divided into parts identified by dates: 1984, 1997, 2008 and 2018. Such a span could suggest saga, but this is a quieter work. It has its dramas, but the tone is not dramatic, which conveys a sense that this is life. Life, in other words, comes with highs and lows, and you just have to get on with it. So we follow the family as Vik grows up and leaves home for university, and as Laura eventually leaves too, at the suggestion of her father. There is always, though, the pull of the farm for Laura – and she does return.

Besides the family drama and the resulting narrative arc to do with Kath’s disappearance, the book is also concerned with farming and the land. Bruce and Laura struggle against drought, bushfires and land degradation to keep the farm going. Climate change hangs over this novel. By 2018 Laura has given up the struggle to regenerate the farm: “the climate had long stopped being something she understood”. This little jump into the future is surely a message from the author, and gives the book a foot in the cli-fi genre.

The other important land issue for farmers – indigenous people and their relationship with the land – is also a thread, introduced early on via Laura’s school friend, the indigenous boy Joseph. This issue is not laboured but bubbles along underneath, coming to the surface in 2018 when Joseph reappears as a man asking for occasional access to the farm for his people. Laura is taken aback:

The land belonged to her and Vik. She thought how mixed up they all were. There was what they believed and what they did, the stories they told. So many truths contained in skin, concentric rings. Laura imagined herself a log, sawn open. How many layers.

She remembers Joseph’s help in the past, and recollects the canoe tree on the property. “‘Course'”, she says, “You can use the place any time you like”.

Like White, for whom this issue is more central, Robinson offers no longterm resolution, but it’s positive to see non-indigenous authors addressing it. (As an aside, I can’t help but think Robinson’s naming one of the farms in the area, the Jolley farm, is a little tribute to Elizabeth Jolley.)

Robinson introduces another contemporary concern, Alzheimer’s. It works well as a plot device, but she does push it a little far. Not unbelievably so, but enough to weigh the novel down a little with issues. On the other hand, it could also work as a metaphor for the way we “forget” what we’ve done and are doing to indigenous people, and to the land.

I enjoyed Robinson’s prose. Here for example is a description of time passing:

The months broke across the year in alternating tasks: clearing, fencing, cutting wood.

And here is a description of the house, when Laura returns after a time away:

The house looked long abandoned, falling into the dry earth. Paint worn away by weather. Verandah sagging. Foundations shifted like rheumatic joints, as though it hurt the wooden skeleton to stay still.

The language, as you can see, is generally spare – sentences tend to be short, and not a lot of time is wasted in long descriptions, just as Laura herself has little time for anything but work.

Overall Anchor point is a tight, well conceived novel. The title, meaning “a safe place”, can be read in multiple ways. Laura does find some “safety” or redemption, but it’s not a simple or easy one for her, and the land itself is far from safe. In the end, it’s all about choices, and, as Laura learns, our choices can create ripples that last long after they’re made. Best, really, to make good choices first off. I’m not sure we’ve learnt that lesson yet.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the novel.

awwchallenge2015Alice Robinson
Anchor point
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781922213617

(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (Review)

RawsonWrongTurnTransitThe weirdest thing happened when I put down Jane Rawson’s debut novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists: I started imagining things! This is weird because I’m not a particularly imagin­ative or fanciful person, so it must have been this book that did it. Let me explain …

First though, I need to say that I’ve been keen to read this book for some time. It started with the cover. I tend not to focus a lot on covers but some do grab me. This one, with its chequerboard of maps, is both eye-catching and intriguing. Then there’s the title. As a librarian/archivist, I’m drawn to organisation and lists but don’t mind a little anarchy every now and then. Is that what’s going on here, I wondered? And finally, there’s its MUBA award win last year. So it came down to a case of three strikes and you’re out – or, more accurately, in – and I bought the book. Well, what a read, because …

A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is a very unusual book. It traverses two places and times: Melbourne in 2030 and a sort-of imaginary San Francisco in 1997. It is, partly at least, a cli-fi* book. 2030 Melbourne is a bleak place – it’s very hot, clean water is harder to come by and more expensive than beer, soap is a luxury, and UN peacekeepers are in town. The rich survive as they do, but poverty is common, and many people live on the streets or in humpies. Bodies are regularly found in the streets. It’s a world you expect in dystopian novels, except that despite appearances, this novel is not completely dystopian.

Indeed, the novel has been described as a “genre-buster”. It is, for example, also a time-travel story, which brings me to the plot. Our protagonist is 33-year-old Caddy, who is living rough, having lost her husband and home in a heatwave-induced fire a couple of years before the novel opens. Like many in this devastated city, she survives on odd jobs – working in a bar, doing courier work, and selling her body. She has friends – an indigenous man and wheeler-dealer Ray, and bar-owner Peira. She also likes to write, and this is where San Francisco comes in because the story she is writing is set in 1997 San Francisco. It’s about two orphans-cum-childhood friends, 17-year-old Simon and 14-year old Sarah. They spend their time following a quest started by their parents in which they have to stand at least once in every 25-foot square of the USA, in order to see the whole country. With me?

At first this story of Caddy’s is told in italics within the main story, but in Part Two the narrative shifts and whole chapters are told in Sarah’s voice. Meanwhile, Caddy, with Ray who has bought some used and apparently magical maps, time-travels from Melbourne to San Francisco where they meet her creations.  Still with me? Hope so, because it gets tricksier. This “travel” involves passing through a sort of netherworld called The GAP, where we find the Office of Unmade Lists, and other sections including Tupperware Lids, Partially Used Pens, and Suspended Imaginums. Suspended Ims, as we in the know call it, is where the things that people imagine but “don’t come true” end up. I think that’s where my brief imaginings have gone!

This sounds more complex than it is – or, should I say, it’s conceptually complex but not hard to follow. Indeed it’s a hoot to read, because for all the grim, grittiness of this climate-damaged world, there’s warmth, love and humour – and a delightful sense of the absurd. I loved Rawson’s exploration of the two universes, the “real” and the “imagined”, and the way she has them meet. She messes with our minds! It made me think of Marion Halligan’s comment about her main character in Fog garden. Halligan writes: ‘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.’ Halligan’s purpose is different, but the concerns, those to do with where imagination ends and reality begins, are similar.

That said, I’m not 100% sure of what Rawson’s purpose is, but I think she’s playing with her readers, with the idea of writing fiction, and with the meaning of fiction itself. Take, for example, her character Simon responding to Caddy telling him he’s her creation:

‘You come in here and tell us we’re imaginary, and now you’re saying you’re not even a very good writer! What do you mean? Like we’re all two-dimensional and shit, not fleshed out at all? Unrealistic? Is that what you’re saying? I don’t feel unrealistic. I feel pretty pissed off actually, which is kind of a realistic response to someone telling you you’re a shithouse imaginary character.’

Caddy looked at Ray like he might somehow get her out of this. He still had his head in his hands.

‘Sorry’, she said. ‘You’re heaps more complicated than what I imagined, if that helps.’

I love the sly, tongue-in-cheek allusion here to literary theory, to EM Forster’s notion of flat and round characters. This is just one of several references in the book to the things readers and critics talk about.

A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is a fun, absurd, clever book in which Rawson somehow marries her very real concerns about the future of our earth with a belief that human compassion and ingenuity will survive, and wraps it up in an exploration of the complex relationship of imagination to reality. Imagination, Rawson seems to be saying, is the real stuff of life.

So, my recommendation is: Don’t worry about the book making complete sense. Suspend your disbelief, enjoy the ride, and realise that here is a lively intelligence you don’t want to miss.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book.


Jane Rawson
A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2013
ISBN: 9781921924439

* Jane Rawson was, and maybe still is, Editor of Energy & Environment at The Conversation

Annabel Smith, The Ark (Review)

SmithArkSelfPubI must start by thanking Western Australian short story writer Glen Hunting* for recommending Annabel Smith’s The Ark in his comment on a recent Monday Musings post. Hunting wrote that it “is self-published and available as a print book, e-book, app, and has its own interactive website”. I was intrigued so checked it out. My initial reaction was “hmm, is this for me?” But, I’ve wanted to read Smith for a while, so decided where better to start than with this innovative project? I bought the iPad app version and was entertained from the first page. Lisa (ANZLitLovers), who reviewed it just after I started reading it, felt the same.

The Ark is, for want of a better description, dystopian speculative fiction presented in the form of a modern epistolary novel with interactive options. I say “modern” epistolary because the story is told through a variety of textual communications – emails, a blog, memos, reports, minutes of meetings, and news articles. It is divided into two books, of which the first is told, sequentially, through four characters, one on the outside followed by three inhabitants – Kirk Longrigg, CEO of SynBioTec Australia which established the Ark; Ava, a wife, mother and deferred PhD student-expert on despots; Roscoe, the 15-year old son of futurologist Mia; and Pilot, a botanist. At different points in the book we are invited to investigate the Ark via links though which we can tour the bunker, hear the inhabitants, add our own contributions or fan-fiction. I liked the graphics used to depict the Ark, but didn’t spend a lot of time exploring these interactive elements. I suspect different readers, depending on their interests, will behave very differently in this regard. Perhaps game-players will engage more with the interactive features? The good thing is that the book is flexible. It’s not necessary to engage in these digressions, but it can, I’m sure, enhance your enjoyment if you are so inclined.

Roscoe's Blog

Roscoe’s Blog

Not surprisingly, an important element of the book is its design. Each different type of communication has its own visual style – the “dailemails”, the more private person-to-person “Gopher”, the supposedly secure “Headless Horseman”, Roscoe’s “Kaos Kronikles” blog, BLiPPs, and so on. Once these become familiar, they signpost the context in which each communication is occurring. As I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking what fun Smith must have had coming up with all the names and acronyms (like GARDEN, the Growth Apparatus for Regenerative Development of Edible Nourishment) used in the Ark.

But please, I hear you asking by now, what is it all about? The story is set between 2041 and 2043, but commences with a brief newspaper report in 2093 announcing that:

Seventeen people have been recovered from a bunker built into Mount Kosciuszko in south-east Australia, where they have been living in total isolation for almost five decades, since the government collapse in the wake of the post-peak oil chaos in 2041.

There is more to the Ark than that though. It was not principally about saving people – as the presence of the botanist may clue you into. The Ark was in fact a seed bank or “National Arboreal Protection Facility” aimed at preserving seeds for an uncertain future. This aspect of the novel reflects Smith’s concern about climate change, something that is reinforced when we discover that the Mount Kosciuszko area in Australia’s high snow country is now rife with sandstorms! But, there is another theme to this novel, besides this specific climate change one. It’s a more universal one to do with charismatic-cum-despotic leaders. Consequently, it is Ava, the expert in despots, who is the first of the inhabitants to carry the story after Kirk’s opening section which concerns a disagreement between him and the Ark’s project manager, Aidan Fox, regarding Aidan’s unauthorised lockdown of the site for security reasons. For some time, we don’t know who to believe. Smith complicates the issue by Ava’s possibly being unreliable due to having suffered mental problems in the past.

Anyhow, the plot thickens. There’s adultery, a few deaths, and some excursions outside. As more things start to go wrong, conflicts arise regarding freedom and human rights versus security… It’s clever, but believable, and fits comfortably with other dystopian novels about people trapped in isolated locations or in alien futures, and it also draws on what we know about the experience of people in religious cults.

This is a plot and ideas-driven novel rather than a character-based one, which is partly due to Smith’s goals and the genre she is working in, and partly a factor of the multi-voice epistolary form which does not lend itself to in-depth characterisation. I say this, though, not as a criticism. It’s a good read, and doesn’t suffer for this lack of character focus, much as I love character-driven novels. It’s just that the characters are generally more “types” than fully realised individuals – the conniving henchman, the willing nurturer, the trusting hardworking followers, the loyal but open-minded offsider. There is, too, an opening for a sequel that could explore, for example, how the seventeen members engage with the world they enter (or reenter) in 2093.

As regular readers know, I’m not a keen e-Book reader. I’ve read a few books on my Kindle, but this was the first complete book I have read on my iPad. It was fine, partly because the form did not mean pages of dense text to confront on a glary screen, but I was disappointed that although I could bookmark pages of interest, I could not make notes on the text as I can on the Kindle or on “regular” books on the iPad. I do like my marginalia, but I guess it’s dependent on how the content is generated. Oh well.

Have I told you enough? I hope so. It’s well worth a read if you like dystopian fiction and/or if you are interested in experiencing different ways of telling stories in our digital world. I’d never want straight prose novels to disappear – and I don’t believe they will – but the arts should also be about experimenting and playing with boundaries, and this is what Smith has done here. Good for her.

awwchallenge2014Annabel Smith
The Ark
Self-published, 2014
ISBN: 9780646923109

* Glen Hunting’s story “Martha and the Lesters” appeared in Knitting and other stories, which I reviewed a few months ago.

Ian McEwan, Solar

Ian McEwan Solar bookcover

Bookcover (Used by permission of the Random House Group Ltd)

I don’t know whether I believe your story, but I’ve enjoyed it.

So says McEwan’s latest creation, Michael Beard, to a character he has “done wrong”. This more or less sums up my feelings about Solar, the novel in which this statement appears. I am a McEwan fan and have greatly liked most of the 5 or 6 of his books that I’ve read but, while I found this one readable, I’m not convinced that it completely comes together into a coherent whole. This may have something to do with the fact that McEwan has tried for something lighter here and hasn’t quite pulled it off.

Do I need to describe the plot? It’s been reviewed so much by now that I presume most readers here already know it. However, to be on the safe side, here goes. It’s all about Nobel Laureate physicist, Michael Beard, who at the start of the book is 53 years old, 15lbs overweight and at the end of his 5th marriage (due to his incurable, it seems, womanising). On top of this he is struggling to keep his career alive: he is surviving, mostly on speaking engagements, while he waits, hopes, for a new inspiration. This is the set up. And, as is typical of McEwan, a little way into the book an event occurs that will be life-changing. In Beard’s case it will kickstart his career. How that occurs – and its eventual fallout – forms the rest of the book.

The novel is divided into three parts, labelled simply 2000, 2005 and 2009. If Beard was 15lbs overweight in 2000, in 2005 he is 35lbs overweight and by 2009 that has increased to 65lbs. This might tell you something about him: he is out of control in every aspect of his life – physically, emotionally, intellectually and morally. He is not, as you might gather from this, a likable man, but it is mainly through his eyes – told third person – that we experience the novel.

As the title suggests, the book’s subject matter is solar energy and climate change. And some of the best parts are those in which McEwan satirises the politics of climate change. In an amusing sequence, Beard is invited to the arctic along with a number of artists (making him the proverbial sore thumb) to experience climate change first hand. While he is there he observes the increasing chaos in the “bootroom” where the outdoor clothing is kept. From day one, the “bootroom” doesn’t work as people take items from pegs that are not their own resulting by the end of the week in no-one wearing a complete outfit that fits them. This works pretty well as a metaphor for the chaos and disorganisation in the climate change community. Add to this scenes like the idealistic climate-changers scooting about the ice in their gas-guzzling skidoos and you get a rather funny, and pointed, episode in the book.

The tone of the book is, in fact, comic-satiric which is a bit of a departure for McEwan who has tended to write books that are more dramatic, many with a “thriller” component. Here, though, there are even moments of slap-stick, such as when Beard early in the book pretends that he has a woman in the house in an attempt to make his wife jealous – all to no effect, but in terms of the novel’s plot it results in a deeply ironic statement:

Clearly he had been in no state to take decisions or to devise schemes and from now on he must take into account his unreliable mental state and act conservatively, passively, honestly, and break no rules, do nothing extreme.

Not long after this episode he does the complete opposite. Some of the members of my reading group found the book very funny but for me it fell a little flat. I saw the satire and thought it was clever at times, but it was sometimes more pathetic than highly comic, and at other times a little heavy-handed. Here, for example, is Beard on the bootroom:

How were they to save the earth – assuming it needed saving, which he doubted – when it was so much larger than the bootroom?

Now, most readers would already have got the point. I’m not sure that we needed to have it hammered home like this.

The focus of the book, as you will have gathered by now, is Beard and we spend a lot of time in his head. This is not a problem in itself, except that he never seems to change. He’s a gluttonous, arrogant, self-centred womaniser at the beginning and is the same at the end. He is also morally bankrupt – something you will discover soon enough if you read the book. Does a character have to change for a book to work? Not necessarily – think Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume – but we do have to stay interested in the character and Beard, for me, became a little boring. There was too much of the same – too much womanising, too much alcohol and fatty, fast food, too much self-aggrandisement – that I started to think “enough already”.

The key question to ask, then, is why has McEwan chosen such a character? The answer seems to be that McEwan wanted to express his fear – cynicism even – about 21st century humankind’s ability to enforce change. Early in the novel is this:

Beard was not wholly sceptical about climate change. It was one of a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action … but he himself had other things to think about …

Himself, basically. Is McEwan saying Beard is us, is Everyman? If so, I can’t help thinking he’s got a point, but I’m not sure he’s written the book – like, say, Animal farm – that sustains the trope well enough to last the distance.

Oh dear, I fear now that I have been more critical than I meant to, because I did find the book readable. I did want to know what happened. I liked a lot of the language. And I did enjoy many of the observations McEwan makes throughout the book – about reason and logic versus idealism, about feminism, and of course about politics. Take for example the following, which is very apposite given that we downunder are in the middle of a Federal election campaign:

He was aggressively apolitical – to the fingertips, he liked to say. He disliked the overheated non-arguments, the efforts each side made to misunderstand and misrepresent the other, the amnesia that spooled behind each ‘issue’ as it arose.

I can relate to that …

Finally, there is a sly bit of self-deprecation running through the book about stories, imagination and the arts. I had to laugh at Beard’s comment that:

People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to have equal value.

I’ll leave you to decide what you think of McEwan’s version here.

Ian McEwan
London: Jonathan Cape, 2010
ISBN: 9780224090506