Heather Rose, Bruny (#BookReview)

Book coverIf The yield (my review) was Tara June Winch’s passion project, I’d say Bruny is Heather Rose’s. It’s a very different book to her previous novel The museum of modern love (my review). Not only is it a strongly plot-driven novel, but it’s about something that is clearly dear to her heart, the future of Tasmania and, perhaps more generally, of liberal democracy.

Bruny could be described as a genre-bender. Part political thriller, part romance, verging even towards dystopian fiction, the novel tracks the fate of a bridge being built to join the main island of Tasmania with Bruny Island. In it, New York-based UN conflict resolution specialist, and twin sister of Tasmania’s premier, Astrid Coleman returns home at the behest of her twin brother to ensure that the bridge is completed on time after a bomb had nearly destroyed it. It’s not long, however, before she smells a rat. Just what that rat is, who’s behind it and why, is what keeps us turning the pages.

Now, as this is a plot-driven book – and one underpinned by political intrigue – I am fearful of giving too much away. However, fortunately, it’s not all plot, because the plot serves a purpose. The book reminds me in a way – though I’m not sure Rose will appreciate this – of Richard Flanagan’s The unknown terrorist (which I read long before blogging.) It too is a strongly plot-driven novel from a literary fiction author, and it too was inspired by a clearly passionate political concern. In Flanagan’s case it was how government and the media were handling the terrorism threat, engendering fear and consequently facilitating the scapegoating of people with little or no evidence.

Anyhow, back to Bruny. In the Bruny teaser on her website, Rose describes her book as a “political thriller”, “satire”, “love story”, and “family saga”, which, fundamentally, is questioning the “new world order”. Now, Rose has done something clever, I think, in setting her book just into the future. The American president isn’t named in the novel, but the description Rose provides leaves us in no doubt as to the timing of her novel, which would be around 2022. Astrid says:

‘Right now, America has an isolationist, neo-conservative president who doesn’t believe in American strength being used to stabilise the world. Quite the opposite. He considers it the chief weapon to exert dominance. And he’s in his second term. He’s turned his back on American’s allies because he doesn’t believe in that framework. Now we’re seeing the fallout of that approach and it’s crippling international relations, the global economy, the American economy.’

I say the dating is clever because, being just into the future, we can’t say “that didn’t happen”, but Rose can say “this is what might happen”. Readers, of course, have to decide for themselves whether they agree that what Rose proposes could happen, but I must say she was uncomfortably prescient about cruise ships!

It made the whole front page of the newspaper. BIO-SCANDAL! The whole fiasco of cruise ships and no policing, no ability to quarantine sick passengers and get medical help to them on board. The risk of an epidemic, if they were allowed into our hospitals.

So, what are Rose’s concerns? She is concerned that, with America withdrawing from the field, another power – in this case, China – can step in. She sets up a Macchiavellian plot based on this supposition, but this is as far as I’ll go about that. She is concerned more broadly about the increasing conservatism of governments, on their focus on money (“jobs and growth”) over people (“health and education”). She is worried that unimpeded progress – which is already a concern in Tasmania – will be detrimental to community, to society. She sees the destruction of the arts as weakening our culture and laying us open to outside influence. Government official Edward tells Astrid:

‘ … This government, at a state and a federal level, they’ve hammered the arts for years. They’ve eviscerated it … Every theatre company or film production company in this country – unless it’s making a Marvel movie – has been defunded. That’s our cultural expression, and if we don’t have that, it weakens everything. It’s a bit like leaching. We’re wilting with cultural anaemia…’

Ok, so now you might be thinking this is a preachy novel – as political novels can be – and it is to a degree. There are times when the explanations threaten to take over, but Rose manages not to bog it down too much. The story gradually builds up pace, with most of the messages carried through dialogue. Being told first person helps, too, because we don’t have an omniscient third person telling us like it is, but Astrid sharing her thoughts, concerns, and ponderings with us. Is there something, though, that she’s not telling us? How reliable is she? That little niggle also keeps us reading.

And then there are the characters. Astrid’s family is not exactly your typical one. Her endearing but stroke-affected father says little except to – rather perspicaciously – quote Shakespeare at his family; her prickly mother has terminal cancer; and her half-sister, Max, is the Labor leader of the opposition. Her brother, as I’ve already said, is the state premier, while his wife Stephanie has a warmth and intelligence that belies her supportive political wife demeanour. There is also a love interest for 54-year-old divorced Astrid down there on Bruny! The relationships between all these characters not only move the story and ideas on, but they also provide a little human respite from the machinations. Respite also comes from little touches of humour, much of it drawing from Rose’s deep understanding of Tasmania and Tasmanians. You have to laugh, for example, at the plethora of activist groups, like the Pythonesque Bruny Friends Group, Bruny in Action, and the Bruny Progress Society!

Concluding the above-mentioned Bruny teaser, Rose says “I hope you are entertained by this novel; I hope that you are intrigued by it; and I hope that it also makes you think?” She achieves all of this. The plot and the strongly delineated characters, as befits her satire, make it both intriguing and entertaining to read, while the politics certainly make you think. The Chinese government – together with neo-conservative governments – are the villains of the piece. This makes for uncomfortable reading, and not just because of the truth of the issue but because naming villains this way, as we know, can lead to wrong and dangerous assumptions. The Chinese government is not all Chinese people, just like a certain American president does not stand for all Americans. It behoves thinking readers to make that distinction.

And finally, there’s the ending. Without giving it away, I will say that there’s a certain question of the ends justifying the means, of those believing they are right taking matters into their own hands. It makes you think! Bruny, then, is more than an engaging political thriller. It is a book intended to challenge us to think about the world we are making for ourselves, and to consider what we can do about it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) enjoyed the novel; Bill (The Australian Legend) also enjoyed it, with some reservations.

Challenge logoHeather Rose
Bruny
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2019
ISBN: 9781760875169
408pp.

Heather Rose, The museum of modern love (#BookReview)

Heather Rose, The museum of modern loveAs I neared the end of Heather Rose’s Stella Prize-winning novel The museum of modern love, I slowed down. I wanted, of course, to know how it was going to resolve, but I wanted to savour it too. It doesn’t seem right to rush the end of thoughtful books like this.

But, I have to admit that I was initially hesitant about reading the book, as I am about any book inspired by a person or work I don’t know. I fear missing something important. However, I did want to read it and my reading group scheduled it. The die was cast. Then, as I was about to start reading, Brother Gums sent me a link to the documentary Marina Abramović: The artist is present about her and the performance piece which inspired this novel. I was set! As it turned out, I think Rose’s writing is evocative enough that it wasn’t necessary to have seen the film, but it did add a layer to the experience.

So, what is The museum of modern love about – besides love, that is? Its centre is performance artist Marina Abramović’s 75-day piece, The Artist is Present, which she performed at MoMA in the spring of 2010, to accompany a large retrospective exhibition of her work. The piece involved her sitting, still, quiet, at a table all day, 6 days a week (MoMA is closed Tuesdays), with gallery attendees invited to take turns to sit opposite her and share a gaze. It was an astonishing success, with, by the end, people camping out overnight to get the chance to sit. Many attended for days just to watch, creating, as Rose describes it, quite a community of spectators. In the end, over 850,000 people attended, with 1,545 people sitting (including Rose). (All are recorded at flickr.)

Anyhow, from this premise, Rose weaves an engaging, thoughtful story about art and love. It has two main narrative strands, telling the real Marina Abramović’s story and that of an attendee, the fictional musician Arky Levin, whose life is stalling, partly due to a restraining order made by his now-unresponsive terminally-ill wife that he not visit her. Interspersed with these, enriching the exploration of the themes, are smaller stories of other attendees, and family and/or friends of the protagonists. It’s narrated by a mysterious third person voice, who starts the novel with

He was not my first musician, Arky Levin. Nor my least successful. Mostly by his age potential is squandered or realised. But this is not a story of potential. It is a story of convergence.

This is a very particular omniscient narrator, some sort of artist’s muse who self-describes late in the novel as a “good spirit, whim … House elf to the artists of paint, music, body, voice, form, word”, one whose job is sometimes just “to wake things up”. This could be cutesy or forced, but it isn’t because Rose doesn’t overdo it. Mostly the story progresses without the intrusion of this narrator, so that when s/he appears we pay attention.

The moral conundrum at the novel’s heart is – is art enough or is love more important? It’s explored primarily through Levin, whose friends suggest he should appeal Lydia’s court order.

I know you’re going to say that she wanted you to do this; she wanted you to make music. But is that enough?

Music, it sounded feeble suddenly in the face of the yawning gap between life before Christmas and life these past four months. (p. 158)

So what does Levin do? Continue to live his increasingly lonely life making music, or follow his heart?

Levin’s story is off-set against other stories, notably that of Jane Miller, a friendly, recently widowed art teacher visiting New York from Georgia. She is lonely, like Levin, missing her husband “achingly, gapingly, excruciatingly. Her body hadn’t regulated itself to solitude.” She becomes one of the mesmerised watchers, but she also connects with others in the crowd, including Levin and Brittika, a PhD student from the Netherlands who is writing her thesis on Marina. Jane forms a natural link between the two themes of love and art.

What, then, is art?

The first time Jane attends the performance, she overhears people in the crowd questioning what the show is about, asking what is art, in fact. There are, of course, the naysayers, the ones who say that “art is irrelevant. If everything goes to crap, it won’t be art that saves us”. But Jane thinks differently, and turns to the man next to her who is, you guessed it, Levin, and says

I think art saves people all the time … I know art has saved me on several occasions.

As the novel progresses, various claims are made for art. Our muse, speaking particularly for artists, believes that “pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time” and that “artists run their fingers over the fabric of eternity”. Marina’s art teacher says to her 16-year-old self that  “Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart”, which causes Marina to consider that “Art … could be something unimaginable”. At one point Marina is reported as saying “I am only interested in art that can change the ideology of society”.

Jane, the viewer, though, has her own epiphany:

And maybe this was art, she thought, having spent years trying to define it and pin it to the line like a shirt on a windy day. There you are, art! You capture moments at the heart of life.

But, I think it is art critic Healayas who makes the clearest, simplest point when she says during a discussion about Marina’s performance:

She simply invites us to participate … It may be therapeutic and spiritual, but it is also social and political. It is multi-layered. It is why we love art, why we study art, why we invest ourselves in art.

… and what has love got to do with it?

Everything, if art, as all this suggests, is about humanity.

Let’s look specifically at Levin. It would be easy to criticise him, as his friends and daughter gently do, for being passive. But, we do get the sense that Lydia encouraged his passivity in their life together, that she liked to be in control, not in a control-freak way but in that way that super-competent people can do. Moreover, Lydia made her order out of love for him, to let him continue creating his art, rather than look after her which she didn’t believe was in him. So, what’s Levin to do? How does he reconcile his love against hers?

The resolution when it comes is triggered by art, by Marina’s performance. And this, as Jane believes art can do, probably saves him. I say probably because Rose, clever writer that she is, leaves the ending uncertain. As she and Levin realise,

the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know.

This is an inspired and inspiring book that leaves you pondering. I’ve only touched the surface.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked the novel.

aww2017 badgeHeather Rose
The museum of modern love
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2016
284pp.
ISBN: 9781760291860