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!

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.

Amy Witting, Isobel on the way to the corner shop (#BookReview)

My first reading group book of the year, Amy Witting’s Isobel on the way to the corner shop, nicely doubles as a (late) contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week. Winner of the 1993 Patrick White Award, Amy Witting is one of those much-admired Australian writers who had not then and still has not received the full recognition she deserves. In her lifetime (1918-2001), she was admired by Patrick White, himself, and Thea Astley. Australian poet Kenneth Slessor is recorded as having said “tell that women I’ll publish any word she writes”.

Another admirer, Australia critic Peter Craven, argued that her form of realism wasn’t really accepted by the reading public until Helen Garner appeared on the scene, but for him “Witting was a great master of realism, a naturalist who could render a nuance in a line that might take a lesser writer a page”. Take for example this two sentence paragraph from our socially unconfident protagonist early in the novel:

The prison of other people’s eyes. No prison narrower.

So now, the book. Isobel on the way to the corner shop (1999) picks up the story of Isobel Callaghan that Witting had started in I for Isobel ten years earlier. You don’t need to have read the earlier book to enjoy and appreciate this one, because enough of Isobel’s past is given for us to have a sense of why she is the person we meet here.

“I have to step out into space”

The person we meet is a 21-year-old woman who, having received some encouragement from an editor, is struggling to establish herself as a writer. She’s poor, starving and isolated, having left her job after screaming at a colleague in “a rage”. She fears she’s going mad. I was engaged from the start by her strong sense of self, her vulnerability, and her determination to be independent, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with her. I felt anxious as anxious as she did when she felt she was going mad, and just as relieved as she was when her illness was given a name – tuberculosis.

The first third of the novel introduces Isobel and takes us to the moment of her admission into Mornington Sanatorium in the Blue Mountains. In this section, some of the novel’s themes become apparent – one being the artist’s struggle to survive. Another concerns love. The novel starts with Isobel stalled over writing a love scene, because she doesn’t “know the first thing about it”. Not about parental, family love; not about romantic love. This, and her sense of herself as awkward and unlovable, cause her to make a big – and hurtful – mistake when a young man makes a gesture of real affection towards her.

Over the rest of this section of the novel, Isobel meets some people who show genuine kindness – love – towards her. Although the hospital makes her feel like a “parcel”, the section closes with a comforting touch from hospital volunteer Mrs Delaney, “the first time anyone had touched her in kindness”. Through the remainder of the novel, Isobel observes and experiences all sorts of expressions of love (and its opposite), including through a delightful little poetry discussion group at the sanatorium, which starts when Doctor Wang asks Isobel to explain Gerard Manley Hopkins to him.

In the final two-thirds of the novel, another theme that was nascent at the beginning, comes to the fore, and it’s to do with “being oneself”. Isobel’s sense of self is challenged at the sanatorium. It’s an inspired setting because it encompasses a microcosm of society: patients of a disease that doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor, their visitors, and the doctors, nurses and other staff with whom the patients come in contact. Finding your place in such a world, where you can be stuck for months, is not easy.

Isobel is particularly tested by her room-mate Val, a peevish, inflexible, and, she thinks, illiterate woman. Val is unhappy, and like many unhappy people, is self-absorbed. She “felt for no-one”. Try as she might, Isobel cannot get their relationship onto a comfortable footing:

Is it possible to cause so much misery to another human being, simply by being oneself? she wondered, feeling a reflection of that misery. No help for it; she must continue to be herself.

Maintaining your self is difficult, though, when you are “different”, as our funny, resourceful, and compassionate Isobel clearly is. At one point, when her recovery is threatened, she realises that she must be tougher, and so creates a new mantra for herself, “bastards get better”.

There is, surely, a hint of autobiography here, for Amy Witting’s name is a pseudonym, chosen to remind herself to “never give up on consciousness’, not be unwitting, but to always remain ‘witting'”.

Gradually Isobel does get better, physically and emotionally. She discovers, for example, that people from her old workplace cared deeply about her:

I have to live as if…I have to assume that I have some importance to other people. I have to live accordingly. I have to step out into space.

With this comes debts and responsibilities, something new for her to accommodate.

Peter Craven described Witting’s work as “a form of realism”, and “realism” sounds valid to me. The novel contains minimal drama of the narrative-arc kind. Instead, there’s astute, warm and sometimes wry, observation of ordinary people living their lives. Witting looks into the hearts and minds of human beings to understand who we are, and how we get on together with all our differences. She also offers some subtle social commentary about gender, race, poverty, class. These are not the main game, but they inform the realism inherent in the setting.

Ultimately, Isobel on the way to the corner shop is about how a young artist learns to maintain her integrity, her authenticity, while also behaving responsibly and compassionately. It is, in a way, about growing up, but it encompasses far more too.

Amy Witting
Isobel on the way to the corner shop
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2015 (orig. pub. 1999)
311 pp.
ISBN: 9781922182715

Christine Balint, Water music (#BookReview)

Christine Balint’s Water music was a joint winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella Prize with Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day (my review), but they are very different books. Meany’s is contemporary, perhaps even near-future, and tackles some up-to-the-minute issues regarding fact, truth and authenticity, while Balint’s is historical fiction, a coming-of-age story, albeit a very specific one.

Set in 18th century Venice, Water music tells the story of a young orphan, Lucietta, who is raised by a fisherman’s family until she’s 16 years old when she leaves to live in Derelitti Convent, one of Venice’s many musical orphanages for girls. This interested me, because when my children were young we loved listening to an audiocassette telling the story of Vivaldi teaching in a Venetian orphanage for girls, but I’d never researched it further.

Balint explains her inspiration in the Acknowledgements and on her website. The book, she says, draws on “the unique history of the musical orphanages” in Venice, which existed from around 1400 to 1797, and were run by and for women. They took in girls of any class or background, if they passed an audition, and provided them with an opportunity to pursue a professional career when this “was rarely possible elsewhere in the world”. In particular, they gave impoverished girls an opportunity “to earn an income and establish a career or save for a dowry—enabling them to forge a fruitful life”.

The obvious question is, how could impoverished girls learn enough music to pass the audition? There must have been a way, but in our Lucietta’s case, she was born illegitimately and placed in a “foundling home”. From here she was given to a wet-nurse, the woman who became her mother, but her “real” father had left instructions and money for her musical education. This sets her on the course that leads her to auditioning for and being accepted at Derelitti.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Lucietta, who has learnt the violin, is musically talented and that her parents have been conscientious about fulfilling these instructions. Her mother, Lucietta tells us, “believed that if she followed these instructions, my musical and marital future would be assured”. Notwithstanding this, the question the novella poses is, what is her future to be? A few options are available to, or possible for, Lucietta, ranging from the future her mother doesn’t want for her, being a fisherman’s wife, to one dreamed of by the orphanage girls of being married to a nobleman from the “Golden Book“.

The story is told first person by Lucietta, so we see it all through her eyes. She’s a sensitive, intelligent young woman who has loved her fishing family, which includes a brother Lionello, so it’s not surprising that she is initially disconcerted when she leaves her family to live in the convent. However, this seems to be a kind place were the nuns and music teachers are supportive and the other girls are friendly. There’s not a lot of drama here, which is counter to your typical historical fiction. Instead, we travel along with Lucietta as she absorbs the influences, ideas and life around her, as she grows and changes, and as she meets, under the eyes of her mentors Maestra Francesca and the Convent’s priora, her suitor and potential husband, Don Leonardi.

Lucietta has decisions to make … and the good thing is that she is supported in those decisions without pressure. Well, there is a little pressure, including from one of her Convent friends, the sweet but one-armed and therefore in those times unmarriageable Regina. She had been sent to the Convent by her father who didn’t want to waste money on her. This is a world, after all, where “a girl is only as worthwhile as her marriage prospects”. Through Regina, Lucietta sees all the

Unwanted, unmarriageable girls through centuries. Here in this vast echoing building. Creating sublime music, their souls lost to time. Their music remaining.

There is a little political barb here regarding all those women who created and produced in the past – but anonymously. These convent girls may have had more opportunities than many, but they were not individually remembered. Some may see it as anachronistic when Lucietta sees value in “restoring the music, in finding the music, trying to recover their stories”, but then again, why wouldn’t someone back then have thought of doing this?

Balint’s writing is lovely. She brings the settings Lucietta experiences – her fishing home and then her convent one – to life, and creates in Lucietta an engaging, believable character.

Water music didn’t excite me quite so much as Helen Meany’s book did, perhaps because it’s a gentle book that explores a familiar story, albeit in a different and thoroughly interesting historical setting. However, because of that setting, because of its feminist underpinning, and because the writing is sure, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a good – and not bleak – story.

Theresa also enjoyed this book.

Christine Balint
Water music
Lidcombe, NSW: Brio Books, 2021
119pp.
ISBN: 9781922267610

Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“it’s usually the trap that gets foxed”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Carroll, The lost life (#BookReview)

Audiobook coverLast year, Mr Gums and I bought a new car to replace our loved but aging 15-year-old Subaru Forester. We’ve been keen to move into the hybrid world but wanted to stay with the SUV-style for various practical reasons, so, as soon as a reasonably-priced hybrid SUV appeared on the market here – the Toyota RAV4 – we were in, and so far so good. However, the real reason I’m sharing this is because another impetus for buying a new car was all the new technology, including the audio systems that enable you to play music – and books – via your phones. And so it was that I borrowed my first ever e-audiobook from our local library, Steven Carroll’s The lost life. The technology worked a treat.

Long-term readers here know that I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks, for reasons I’ve explained before. Fortunately, the reader here, Deirdre Rubenstein, did an excellent job. She was expressive, appropriately English-sounding, but read more than played the characters. That helps a lot.

So now, the book. I chose it for two reasons – it was short, making it a good test case, and it was by Aussie author Steven Carroll, whom I haven’t read yet, and whose Eliot Quartet series I’ve been wanting to read. The lost life, the first book in this series, is inspired by the poem “Burnt Norton”, the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Makes sense, huh! “Burnt Norton” was published in 1935, and most of Carroll’s novel is set in September 1934. The novel is framed by the story of Eliot and Emily Hale*, who did, in fact, visit Burnt Norton manor in 1934, but their love is paralleled by that of a young couple, 18-year-old Catherine and 22-year-old Daniel. Eliot, himself, is a fairly shadowy figure in the story, with the focus here being on Miss Hale and Catherine.

The story starts at Burnt Norton, a country estate to which Catherine and Daniel have gone for a romantic picnic and maybe a swim. It’s summer, and Carroll beautifully evokes the passion beating in the “ardent” young Catherine’s breast as she looks forward to further development of their physical relationship, which has not yet been consummated. But, they are interrupted by the appearance of two older people, who turn out to be, of course, Eliot and Miss Hale, and they scurry away because they are trespassing. However, they do observe, from behind the shrubs, a little lovers’ ceremony between the older couple, one that Daniel later violates, fortunately unbeknownst to Eliot and Miss Hale, but distressing to Catherine.

Here, I might pause and refer to the poem which inspired this novel. It starts:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

A little later come the lines that I remember so well from my university days:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

I don’t know what it is about Eliot’s lines that move me so, but I think it’s their almost confounding spareness and mesmerising rhythm. Putting that aside though, it’s this sense of timelessness, of past, present and future being tied to the here and now, of both stillness and movement, of almost suspended animation too, that pervades Carroll’s novel as the protagonists work through their ideas about love and life.

“a felt experience”

Now, Catherine and Miss Hale know each other, as Catherine’s summer job is cleaning the house in which Miss Hale is staying. The plot is, to a degree, predictable. However, it is not the point. The point is how the characters react and feel about what happens. This is an introspective novel in which the two women reflect on love, their own attitudes to it, and what they see, or think they see, in each other. Miss Hale sees her young self in Catherine, her eighteen-year-old self whose disappointment she does not what to see repeated, while Catherine sees wisdom but also sadness in Miss Hale. She comes to realise, in fact, that Miss Hale, who describes her love with Eliot as “a different kind of love”, is a virgin. It is this experience of love, this mystery that endows a special knowledge, that drives the plot.

There is, though, so much to this novel. The tone is gorgeously melancholic, mirroring the poem that inspired it. Carroll also uses images from the poem – sunlight, roses, light – to suffuse his book with a sense of lost time. Repetitions like “young man of whom great things were expected”, “ardent ways”, and “the woman who won’t let go long after she has any right” add to the melancholic tone, while also anchoring our understanding of the characters.

There is also a link drawn between performance and reality. Catherine sometimes feels she is in a play or story, and this contributes to the theme of “the lost life”. Literally, it is the life Miss Hale lost by waiting all those years for Eliot rather grabbing life herself, but more broadly it can encompass all those lives we never have. Even if we, as Miss Hale realises we should, “grasp our moments as they arrive”, there will always be other lives not taken or lived. As Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton”:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.

Ironically, Catherine, who delivers “a felt experience” for Miss Hale, becomes an actor who can “deliver a felt experience on cue”, offering up other lives to her audiences, while living her own moments as they arrive. It’s an inspired conclusion to a book about love, living, and the biggest of them all, time.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.

Steven Smith
The lost life (Audio)
(Read by Deirdre Rubenstein)
Bolinda Audio, 2010 (Orig. pub. 2009)
5:57 e-audiobook (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781742333830

* Check Wikipedia for more on the relationship between Eliot and Hale.

Elizabeth Kuiper, Little stones (#BookReview)

Book coverAnnouncing their 2019 longlist back in February (see my post), the Stella Prize judges said that they “wished for more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers: narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference”. Elizabeth Kuiper’s debut novel, Little stones, may not exactly fulfil this wish for subversion and difference, but it is set in Zimbabwe, and that’s certainly a start.

The main story concerns 11-year-old Hannah’s life as the daughter of divorced parents – and what ensues when her mother decides to leave Zimbabwe, wanting to take her daughter with her. Her father’s up till then somewhat controlled anger against her mother intensifies, and he does all he can to prevent this happening, despite the fact that he has shown little commitment to the real business of loving and rearing a child.

It’s not a particularly new story, but this one has an added layer; it’s the early 2000s and Hannah and her parents are middle-class white Zimbabweans living under Robert Mugabe’s increasingly violent regime. Life is not easy for her family, which includes her tobacco-farmer grandparents, with African nationalism ramping up against what Hannah comes to recognise as “crushing colonisation”.

The story is told first person by Hannah, and this is both its strength and weakness. Strength because Hannah, though intelligent and observant for her age, is a naive narrator. She can only see through an 11-year-old’s eyes, while we, of course, know or can guess what is really happening, whether this is the political violence and corruption happening in the background (and sometimes even closer) or the more personal conflict happening between her parents. So, for example, early in the novel she hears her mother and grandparents talking, yet again, about the Warvets, whom she understands to be “a big family who wanted to steal farms from everyone in Zimbabwe”. Finally, she insists on being heard:

Mum,’ I insisted. ‘I don’t want us to give our farm away to another family.’
‘Another family?’ Mum sought clarification.
‘The Warvets.”
Mum looked around the room, first at Nana, then Grandpa, and let out a sigh. She explained to me that the War Vets were not an extended family. They are a large group of people called the ‘War Veterans’ who mobilised to take back what they saw as their land.

The naive narrator voice achieves a few things. It conveys how unsettling it is for children to be living under stresses that they don’t fully understand, but it can also keep the tension down a little because the full horrors are not made explicit to us (albeit we can guess them.) Hannah is a lovely character, whose special and sustaining relationships with her best friend Diana Chigumba and the family’s Shona housekeeper (not “maid” says her mother) Gogo, are delightfully conveyed. She can, being 11, be naughty, but she’s at heart a sensitive, loving, well-adjusted child.

However, this voice can be a weakness too. It’s difficult to sustain the voice of a child – and unfortunately, perhaps, I’ve just read Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut which does it extremely well. Here, I felt that at times Kuiper’s Hannah used language and concepts that an 11-year-old would not use. We are told she’s intelligent, and good with language, but still I wasn’t always convinced. Here, for example, she talks about the guardianship court case her mother is fighting:

In the past, I would have tried to offer whatever morsel of advice I could manage, but as the court case progressed I came to realise that most of the time she was talking about herself, and so I absorbed her rhetorical questions as a necessary and cathartic part of the process for her.

This, and examples like it, seem rather sophisticated to me in both expression and idea. The question is, are we supposed to believe that this is 11-year-old Hannah telling the story as it happened or older Hannah telling the story? I’m not sure it’s always completely clear, but I felt it was intended to be the former.

All this brings me to the question of whether Kuiper’s story would have been better told as a memoir, because I understand that the novel is, like most debut novels, autobiographical. Of course, I don’t know where the facts of her life end and the fiction begins, but it’s a question that I pondered as I read. And, also of course, memoir would bring its own challenges for Kuiper that she may not have wanted to confront. I don’t blame her for that.

Anyhow, this is a minor quibble if you are prepared to go with the flow, which I decided to do. Kuiper handles well the challenge of conveying the difficulty of the situation for Hannah’s family as white Zimbabweans in an increasingly tense and dangerous atmosphere. She shows that it’s not all about race, or simply about race. There’s the issue of different races – Shona versus Matabele – and there’s class. Hannah’s best friend Diana, for example, comes from a well-to-do black family. Kuiper also handles convincingly the parallel, and perhaps most significant for Hannah, issue of separated parents wrangling over their daughter. The descriptions of Hannah’s father’s increasing manipulation of the system to get his way are infuriating if not chilling – but oh so real. Hannah, in fact, has to grow up fast if she is to survive this dual personal and political unrest she finds herself in.

Little stones is, then, essentially, a coming-of-age story, which also works as a Young Adult-Adult crossover novel. It offers something special to readers in both these areas because its perspective is a rare one for us to read here; because it is told with a lovely vitality and attention to the details of a life lived under complex political and personal circumstances; and because it manages to tread that fine line that shows rather than judges. And that, I think, is impressive.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeElizabeth Kuiper
Little stones
St Lucia: UQP, 2019
264pp.
ISBN: 9780702262548

(Review copy courtesy UQP)

Julian Davies, Call me (#BookReview)

Book coverI wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started reading Call me, the latest offering from that tricksy duo, novelist Julian Davies and illustrator Phil Day. But, it soon became clear that what was before me was a coming-of-age story. What, I wondered, was Davies doing writing such a novel? Then I remembered that this was the author who gave us, most recently, Crow mellow (my review), so I decided to relax and go with the flow. Sensible me, because this is a sophisticated take on the genre, geared to an adult audience.

The story starts in the first person voice of a young woman called Caddie, who is in bed with a young man called Pip. They are both in their last year of school, and the story spans the last couple of months of that year, through their eyes. However, the tricksiness starts here, because Caddie’s voice is first person, while Pip’s is third person subjective. Why? An author doesn’t make these decisions lightly, so I usually want to know why. It’s particularly interesting here because this is a male author choosing to write his female character in first person, and the male in third person. I’ll come back to this because right now you are probably wanting to know more about the actual story than these technicalities!

“This is Australia” (Pip’s friend, Stu)

So, the story. Caddie and Pip have been in a relationship for around a year at the start of the novel, but it’s geographically challenged because Caddie lives in the city (in Canberra, in fact) while Pip lives in the country, an hour or so’s drive away. Davies knows whereof he speaks because he too lives about an hour’s drive from Canberra. Caddie’s parents see themselves, according to Pip, as “high middle class”. They both run businesses, her father’s being an investment business called Capital Capital, and her mother’s an art gallery called Sense and Sensibility (because, as she apparently told Pip, “she was lapping up Jane Austen while her friends were still  playing with their dolls”). They keep “upgrading” their homes, and they fight a lot. Pip’s parents, on the other hand, describe themselves as “feral middle class”. Sydney escapees, they live in the not-quite-finished house they built themselves; they take a loving but laissez-faire approach to parenting; and they get on well. All this introduces the city-versus-country theme that recurs in Davies’ works, including Crow Mellow and his Meanjin piece about building his own home (my review). It’s pretty clear where Davies’ preference lies!

The majority of the novel takes place over 15 days, and chronicles, in lovely nuanced detail, the tensions that develop in Pip and Caddie’s relationship due to Pip’s decision to leave school only weeks before the end. Their thoughts and feelings are told alternately in chronologically named chapters, like “Day One” and “Day Eight (Still Later)”. Although Caddie is critical of her parents, in the way that teenagers often are, she’s following the traditional path of working hard at school and planning to go to university. She is totally into mobile phones and social media. Pip is a more independent thinker. He’s not interested in social media, and only has a phone because Caddie gave it to him. And yet, in a neat paradox, Caddie records her thoughts in a diary, while Pip records his into his phone! This is pure Davies, by which I mean nothing is simple or straightforward.

So, we have the city-versus-country theme, plus a subtle questioning of modern technology, including our reliance on it and its potential for misuse. A third theme relates to education. Pip’s decision to leave school stems from his refusal to live by external expectations that don’t feel authentic to him. He hates the “petty rules” and, as Caddie explains it, “the kind of society we live in that the education system feeds”. He has no alternative plans but feels incapable of “passively endorsing” a system he doesn’t believe in.

“What kind of person am I?” (Caddie)

Accompanying these more sociological themes are personal, psychic ones. Both Caddie and Pip are deeply concerned with their identity, specifically with what it is to be “a person”. Caddie, living in her “sheltered” house and uncomfortably aware of the material benefits provided by her parents, wonders not only “what kind of person” she is, but, more broadly, “what does it mean to be a person.” This question of personhood is frequently burdensome to her. Pip, however, has a different take, recognising that “he is only one person”. One of the challenges they face is negotiating their own and each other’s personhoods. Late in the novel, when their relationship is floundering, Pip wonders “did the new, distant Caddie undermine and diminish his sense of her as the person he thought he knew?” Meanwhile, Caddie “wonders who Pip is that he can hold this view.”

Call me, then, is essentially a book of ideas that questions, in a lightly satirical way, aspects of modern Australian society, but it’s not boringly didactic, partly because the ideas are explored though some engaging characters. These include two we met in Crow Mellow, making this book a sort of “companion piece”. The characters are the wise Phil Day, a teacher who, cheekily, happens to share a name with the book’s illustrator, and the ridiculously named cynic, Dick Scrogum (aka Scrotes). Scrogum’s opinionated banter and Day’s quiet conversations encourage Pip to dig a little deeper into the reasons for his decision.

These characters, however, are only part of why the book doesn’t become mired in earnestness. Another reason is that, surprisingly, as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that there’s more to it than just Caddie and Pip’s relationship; there is in fact quite a plot developing. Who are the mysterious callers on Pip’s phone and what do they want? Should we be worried about them? And what about the gun that Pip has? It is pretty much de rigueur that once a gun is mentioned in a narrative it’s going to be used, but will it? Is this book not what it looks, but, really, some sort of crime-mystery-thriller? You’ll need to read it to find out.

And now, I’ll return to that question I posed at the beginning about voice. Both first person and third person subjective voices offer easy engagement with characters but can only offer limited perspectives. Telling the story through two such voices widens the perspective, by letting us see Caddie and Pip through each other’s eyes as well as their own. In other words, we get a little touch of omniscience alongside close engagement. But, why is one voice first person and the other third? I’m not sure really, but maybe it’s something to do with the fact that Pip is the main protagonist, and that Caddie, as the “I”, represents both herself and the reader (who is, perhaps, likely to be more like her – female, sincere, somewhat conservative, but also open-minded and keen to explore). By being more directly in her head, we are encouraged to question, as she does, certain assumptions and values. I suspect too that there may be something autobiographical about this novel. Is Pip like Davies’ younger self? And does putting Pip at one step remove provide him with a little space to interrogate the boy he was? Certainly Caddie seems to question who Pip is more than vice versa. I’m probably wrong about this, but at least I’ve given it a shot!

As I say all too often, there is so much to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on the gorgeous landscape descriptions of a region I love. Nor on the clever segues, nor Phil Day’s whimsical illustrations, nor the humour, nor, indeed, what a beautiful book is it to look at, hold and read. However, I’ve written enough for now.

Call me, then, is not only an engrossing story about the psychic growing-up of its protagonists, but one that also offers provocative commentary on both humanity in general and modern society in particular. Them’s big boots, but Davies pulls it off, resulting in a book that’s both intelligent and fun to read.

Julian Davies
Call me
Illustrated by Phil Day
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2018
363pp
ISBN: 9780994516541

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)

Annabel Smith, Whiskey and Charlie (#BookReview)

Annabel Smith, Whiskey and CharlieSome explanations first. Western Australian author Annabel Smith’s novel Whiskey & Charlie was first published in Australia back in 2012 as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, which immediately brings to mind the two-way alphabet (or, as I knew it, the alphabet used by the police on The Bill for communication. The things you learn via TV!) However, as happens, the book was, excitingly and successfully, published in America in 2014, and its title was changed to the less evocative Whiskey & Charlie. What I read – heard, actually – was the audiobook that I won in a Readers’ Pack draw last year. Mr Gums and I listened to it on our recent road trip to Melbourne. It passed the time beautifully.

But, another thing, before I talk about that. I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks as I explained earlier in this blog. I really like to see the text; I don’t like to miss visual clues; and I rarely like readers acting out the voices. All these were challenges with Whiskey & Charlie, particularly the last one. The reader, Gildart Jackson, is English. He did the English accents well, but, oh dear, his Australian accent sounded disconcertingly American. I assume this audio, with its American title, was made for an American audience, but, regardless … I prefer reading!

So now the book itself which, really, is what this is all about isn’t it? It tells the story of two identical twins, Whiskey (born William) and Charlie. It is all told, however, through Charlie’s eyes, as the novel starts after Whiskey has had a freak accident and is lying in hospital in a coma. They are 32 years old, and the trouble is that they have been estranged for some time. Charlie has no idea what music, for example, Whiskey would want played at his funeral should he not awaken. He’s distressed. A procastinator who avoids confrontations, he’d always believed there’d be time to sort it all out. The novel progresses from this point, with the family taking turns waiting by Whiskey’s bedside, while Charlie remembers the past and how they’d got to the point they’re at. As he does so, he gradually comes to some realisations about himself and their relationship that enable him to – finally – mature, to see that it hadn’t all been as one-sided as he’d rather smugly assumed. This could be seen in fact as a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps all novels are, in a way; perhaps none of us stop coming of age until we, well, stop?

Anyhow, what makes this book particularly intriguing, besides the thoroughly engrossing story of an ordinary family with all its ups and downs – emigration from England to Australia, parental divorce, and so on – is its structure. And this is where the two-way alphabet comes in. We learn early on that when they were 9 years old, the then close twins been given a walkie-talkie set, and, to help with communication, they learnt this alphabet. William was disappointed that Charlie’s name was in the alphabet, while his was not. Charlie dubs him Whiskey, which becomes his name from then on. Smith structures the narrative around the alphabet, with each chapter titled according to the words – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and so on right through to Zulu – and with each of these words linking to some part of its chapter’s content.

This – and the fact that the flashbacks aren’t completely chronological – gives the novel a somewhat episodic structure, but it doesn’t feel forced. Instead, the story is revealed in the backwards-forwards sort of way, for example, that we gradually get to know new friends while the friendship itself is moving forward. (A not uncommon structure. What makes this one a bit different is being organised by the alphabet.)

I’m not going to write my usual sort of review, mainly because having listened to it, I don’t have the same sort of notes, or the same easy access to check details or find quotes. So, I’ll just make a few comments. It’s quite a page-turner, with the main plot, as you’d expect, turning on whether Whiskey will come out of his coma, and if he does what state will he be in. The secondary plot relates to Charlie’s mental state, and his understanding of himself and his relationship with his brother (not to mention with his long-suffering, angelically patient partner, Juliet). He has always felt inferior – the one who came second, the one who didn’t get the girls or the fancy jobs – but he also felt in the right when it came to their estrangement. However, were things really how he saw them? This is something he has to work out for himself. For this reason, the third person limited voice is a good choice for the novel. It enables us to feel with Charlie, while also providing that little bit of distance which enables us to see that Charlie’s perspective may be just a little skewed.

One of the lovely things about Smith’s plotting is that there’s no melodrama, or over-blown emotionalism here. Sure, drama occurs, and there are some surprises, but it’s all within the realm of possibility. There’s some lovely humour too, particularly in the stories of the boys growing up. One particularly funny section has Charlie describing the “bases” in petting with a girl. There were times, though, when I felt Charlie was too angry, too irrational, particularly towards the end when it seemed he was on the road to growth, but that’s minor and didn’t affect his overall trajectory.

Binding all this together is the description of Whiskey’s medical condition. Smith obviously did quite a bit of research – or already knew – just how extended comas play out. While I knew some of it, there were details that I didn’t, and that I found fascinating. Smith also covers such issues as grief and end-of-life decisions.

Finally, I like the title. At first I wondered why Whiskey’s name was first when Charlie was telling the story, particularly given Charlie also comes first in the alphabet. But, of course, it’s polite to put the other person first, and it also reflects Charlie’s sense of who was first in their relationship.

Whiskey & Charlie (or Whisky Charlie Foxtrot) has been out for a few years now, but it’s still worth reading if you come across it in a library or bookshop. Or, have you read it already? If you have, let me know what you thought.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked and reviewed this – but way back when it came out!

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAnnabel Smith
Whiskey & Charlie (Audio)
(Read by Gildart Jackson)
Blackstone Audio, 2015 (Orig. pub. 2012)
10H30M on 9CDs (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781504608268

 

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe (#BookReview)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeTwo books came to mind as I was reading Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy swallows universe. One was Steve Toltz’s out-there book about fathers and sons, A fraction of the whole (my review), and the other was Tim Winton’s Breath (my post), which explores what it is to be a good man, but more on these anon.

I had three reasons for wanting to read the book. Firstly, it was my reading group’s first book of the year, and secondly, it was recommended by two people whose literary tastes often match mine, my brother and an ex-reading group friend. Finally, there was its Brisbane setting. I spent six special years of my childhood in the Sandgate area of Brisbane, where, I’d read, Dalton had also lived while growing up. Fortunately, all these reasons were justified as this novel is an excellent read – engrossing in content and intriguing in style.

Boy swallows universe covers around six years of its protagonist Eli Bell’s life, starting in 1985 when he is 12 years old and living with his mother, Frankie Bell, and stepfather Lyle. He and his mute older brother August are regularly babysat by Slim (based on the real criminal, convicted murderer Arthur Ernest Halliday) while Frankie and Lyle are out dealing drugs. Slim, for all his apparent criminality, turns out to be one of the most important wise people in Eli’s life – and, while he isn’t always around as Eli grows older, it is to Slim that Eli often speaks, consciously or subconsciously, drawing on his ideas and advice, as he faces life’s challenges. Eli’s relationship with Slim is just one of the threads and refrains that hold this big book together.

a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic

Terrible things happen in the book – and Eli and August are pushed around, buffeted by the things that happen in the adult world and over which they have little or no control. Part way through the book, having lived most of their lives with Frankie and Lyle in Darra (Brisbane’s southwest), they find themselves dumped with their damaged alcoholic father Robert Bell, whom they don’t know, and who lives in Bracken Ridge (Brisbane’s north in the Sandgate electorate). While Frankie and Lyle, for all their illegal doings, provide a generally stable home-life, the one provided by Robert is erratic, affected by his alcoholic binges. And yet, here too, the two resourceful boys find love – and more, support.

All this probably suggests to you a straightforward book about dysfunctional families, of which there are many these days. But, you would be wrong, because wrapped around the domestic is a story of drug dealing, drug double-dealing and violence, that takes this book into a whole other realm. In fact, the best way to describe it is as a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic. You with me?

Now, I’m going to shift gear a bit and return to those two books I mentioned in my opening paragraph. The book’s opening line is “Your end is a dead blue wren”, and we soon discover that these words have been written in air by August, who is sitting on their brown brick fence while Eli is being taught to drive by Slim. There’s a bizarre edge to all this which, in addition to the fact that the book is mostly about men and boys, fathers and sons, made me think of Toltz’s A fraction of the whole. However, while Toltz’s “bizarre” lies more in the absurd area, Dalton’s is more magical. There’s a red telephone in a secret room, for example, that always seems to ring when Eli is around. Who is at the other end? August at one point says it is he, but is it really? It doesn’t really matter, in fact, because the phone seems to be more about deflecting or, perhaps, relocating fear and trauma than about reality. It works because Eli’s voice and the sort of jaunty in-the-moment tone make it work.

More interesting to me, though, is the link with Winton’s Breath. They are very different books. For a start, Breath is more novella, while Boy swallows universe verges on the big, baggy monster. But, both books are fundamentally about what makes a good man – and, in neither case is the answer simple. In fact, it comes more often than not from flawed, if not sometimes bad, men. From early on in Dalton’s novel, Eli asks various men – family, friends, criminals, strangers – “are you a good man?” Many are surprised and know not what to answer. Gradually though Eli puts together his own picture from their answers and bevaviours, until, near the end, he says (addressing Slim in his mind):

This is what a good man does, Slim. Good men are brash and brave and fly by the seat of their pants that are held up by suspenders made of choice. This is my choice, Slim. Do what is right, not what is easy … Do what is human.

Now, before I get onto the writing, a bit about this genre-bending novel’s plot. As I mentioned above, the novel’s plot-line relates to drug double-dealing. This results, at the end, in quite a suspenseful, page-turning adventure that was much enjoyed by many in my reading group. But, not so much by me who finds reading action pretty boring. Indeed, if I have one question about the book, it’s whether it really needs the final chase. I think the point would have been made had the novel concluded just before it – but that final adventure will help the novel adapt well to film, and to a film that many will want to see, so I won’t be too churlish about it.

And, anyhow, it’s a small criticism because I greatly enjoyed the book. It is so well constructed. Little details dropped in one place are picked up in another; little verbal refrains recur adding both poetry and meaning without being heavy-handed. Even the curious, often cryptic, three-word chapter headings, like “Boy writes words”, “Boy steals ocean”, and “Boy masters time”, are explained late in the book when the Courier Mail editor asks Eli to tell his life in three words.

There’s also lovely descriptive, sometimes lightly satirical writing, such as this from the Vietnamese restaurant scene:

There’s two more tanks dedicated to the crayfish and mud crabs who always seem to resigned to the fact they’ll form tonight’s signature dish. They sit beneath their tank rocks and their cheap stone underwater novelty castle decorations, so breezy bayou casual all they’re missing is a harmonica and a piece of straw to chew on. They’re so unaware of their importance, so oblivious to the fact they are the reason people drive from as far away as the Sunshine Coast to come taste their insides baked in salt and pepper and chill paste.

Then, of course there’s the characterisation, and the first person voice. Eli is such a kind and likeable character. His coming-of-age is a tough one, but he’s positive, loving, open-minded and willing to learn. He’s also courageous. It could almost be schmaltzy except that you see the grit and know that he has been tested. More cynical readers might think Eli is too good to be true, but the book’s light tone and touch of magic remind us that this is not social realism. It’s “true” to the heart of what Eli (and I believe Dalton) experienced, but it’s not fact. It’s about surviving trauma. Dalton has, I’d say, found a perfect recipe for conveying dysfunction and accompanying trauma while also showing how it can be mentally and spiritually survived.

A good read, and a meaningful book that got my reading group off to a rip-roaring start for 2019.

Trent Dalton
Boy swallows universe
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2018
474pp.
ISBN: 9781460753897