Monthly Archives: April 2011

‘The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini

2003, 324 p.


I think that I must be the only person in the planet not to have read this book or seen the movie- and maybe that’s why I hadn’t.  It topped the bestseller lists in many places in the world, and it seems to be a book that people have taken to their hearts.

And why not?  I’m not going to summarize the plot- it’s been done exhaustively here. For the first two-thirds of the book, it was so authentic that I was beguiled into treating it as autobiography–and yes, yes I know that first person narrator does not necessarily mean autobiography, but it was imbued with an authenticity that swept me along and made me forget that.   And then, all of a sudden, at the point when the narrator receives a cut on his lip that mirrored the repaired cleft lip of his companion Hassan, the bones on the plot started to jut out.  With the literary equivalent of ‘jumping the shark‘, it seemed to me that all the coincidences warped into absurdity and the attempts at parallels collapsed into contrived and heavy-handed plot manipulation.  To his credit, the author resisted the temptation of an unequivocal happily-ever-after.

I can see why so many people have embraced the book, though.  It is story-telling, pure and simple.  I’m satisfied in a narrative sense when things ‘click’ as the chronology of the book catches up with something foreshadowed, and when events vibrate in a careful balance. There’s something emotionally filling about the goodies being recognized even if they’re not vindicated; the baddies being punished; redemption and the fulfillment of destiny.     The book is a fable, well told.  I’m only sorry that by overplaying the plotting, it became all too obvious that there was a plotter behind it- a literary Wizard of Oz, so to speak.

This book joins a group of best-sellers about Islamic countries that have been embraced by a Western mainstream audience, primed and curious perhaps by the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (and isn’t that a term to make us squirm now) and the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Because of the audience they attract, such books have much weight placed upon them.  And so I am uncomfortable with the piling of stereotype upon stereotype onto the Taliban villain here- Nazism, child abuse, hypocrisy, corruption.  Let fanaticism be evil enough.

One last thing, though.  As a person with a cleft lip herself, I was gratified to find that the depiction of Hassan’s cleft was probably the most accepting and matter-of-fact that I have read (despite the fact that it was called a ‘harelip’ throughout). I sometimes wonder if I’ve been targeted through internet data trawling, but I have seen more pictures  of older children with unrepaired clefts on the internet through Smile Train advertisements than any first-world inhabitant would ever see in real life.   By the time I reached the end of the book I had inured myself against the tear-jerking moments that seemed just a little too  obviously crafted, but I will admit that I cried like a baby when Hassan looked into the mirror after his surgery and gently touched the stitches on his swollen lip. I’ve been there myself, and as a mother, and I know what a big, wonderful thing that is.   I don’t know why, as author,  Hosseini gave him the cleft – being a Hazara in Afghanistan, undersized, in a menial position in a rich household, bullied, degraded and betrayed as he is,  would surely be enough.  But the cleft was there, it just was, and that’s probably the way it should be.

So- a mixed response.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #9

Not a historian this time but one of my favourite fiction writers, and not so much uplifting as interesting.  It’s the late Carol Shields from a short story I read last night called Collision. She’s talking about biography, not as a genre or literary construct, but as the live experience that we all accumulate around ourselves just through the act of being and living:

The only law of biography is that everything, every particle, must be saved.  The earth is alight with it, awash with it, scoured by it, made clumsy and burnished by its steady accretion… That’s the worst of it: there’s nothing selective about biography’s raw data, no sorting machine, no briny episodes underlined in yellow pencil or provided with bristling asterisks- it’s all here, the sweepings and the leavings, the most trivial personal events encoded with history.  Biography- it sniffs it out, snorts it up… (p. 315)

…Written biography, that’s another matter, quite another matter! Memoirs, journals, diaries. Works of the biog-imagination are as biodegradable as orange peels.  Out they go. Pssst- they blast themselves to vapor, cleaner and blonder than the steam from a spotless kettle.  Nothing sticks but the impulse to get it down. (p.316)

From ‘Collision’, Carol Shields The Collected Stories

‘Life in Seven Mistakes: A Novel’ by Susan Johnson

2008,  344 p.

(4.5 out of 5)

One of the two epigraphs that grace the opening pages of this book quotes Shakespeare’s As you Like It

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances’

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His act being seven ages.

I’m not sure that it was a particularly apposite quote, and it complicated rather than illuminated the title of this book, which for the life of me I can’t quite make fit with the story itself.    Doesn’t matter really: I enjoyed it anyway.

There are two intertwined narratives in the book.  The first, written in the present tense, is told from the perspective of Elizabeth, a middle-aged ceramicist on the verge of her first international exhibition. She has travelled up to Surfers Paradise with her third husband Neil and her children to spend Christmas, and to celebrate her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary four days later. Her  brother and his wife and  children have done the same.     Ah- families- you’ve gotta love them, don’t you- with all that jealousy and love and rawness and spite mixed in together.  There they are, in their parents’ large air-conditioned penthouse at the top of a Gold Coast hi-rise: Bob the patriarch a boorish, loud bully; Nancy his tense, controlling,  hyper-critical wife; Robbo the younger brother who just rolls with the punches and his rather intrusive and opinionated wife, and a brood of disengaged, self-absorbed grandchildren.  Then there’s  Elizabeth, our entree into this family,  who despite her own status as mother, artist and adult woman feels as if she turns into a little girl again around her parents.  Her brother Robbo is spot on about her:

You’re pathetic.  Still bleating about what Mummy and Daddy did to you when you’re almost old enough to retire.  Next year you’ll qualify for one of those over-fifty retirement places.  Are you still going to be blaming your parents when you’re seventy? Life’s too short, Liz (p. 108)

Then there’s the missing youngest brother, Nick who is in jail after a long history of drug use with all the betrayal, defiance and hurt that this brings.  He’s barely spoken of, only briefly encountered in the book,  and yet a presence nonetheless.

How did this family get to be like this?  The other narrative strand takes the young Bobby and Nancy as they meet in the 1950s, begin courting, marry, have children, become increasingly affluent as Bob (who drops the ‘Bobby’) moves up the corporate ladder  into private schools, prestige cars, Surfers Paradise penthouses etc.  But all of this comes at a price- expectations of gratitude and performance- and Bob becomes angrier at the world and the sense of entitlement that he himself has fostered for himself and his family; Nancy tries to make herself and her children smaller targets;  and the three children in their own ways negotiate this spreading emotional mine-field.

Both narrative threads were strong and well-made, and I didn’t find myself regretting when I turned the page to find that the narrative was about to switch again.  The dialogue was particularly good, and the author obviously has a sharp, observant eye.   The ending had an emotional authenticity, at least for this middle-aged reader at the time I am in my own life, although other readers may judge it a cop-out.  The book had the groundedness and edge of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, and felt a little like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections down under.  This is perhaps a little flippant: all three of these books have a truth at their core about loyalties, judgment and the emotional mess of just living.  All three are more than the “human comedies” that their blurb writers have pigeon-holed them as.

Oh, but that title- it’s turning me into a numerologist.  There’s seven main characters- is that it?  Or is it, on p. 106 when Elizabeth lists all the things that people tell her not to be take too seriously: love, art, university, jobs, children, her parents, life itself–  there’s seven of them too.  I wish I hadn’t been so hung up on looking for a reference to the title while reading, and I wish I could let it go now too, but Elizabeth-like, I can’t.  Perhaps that’s the mark of a good book- that it turns YOU into its protagonist??!! ( now that’s  a dangerous thought….)

Some other blog reviews:

Kimbofo at Reading Matters

Lisa at ANZLitLovers

Reeling and Writhing

And other reviews:

The Sydney Morning Herald review by Louise Swinn

The transcript of Jo Case’s review on RN’s Book Show

Felicity Plunkett’s review in The Age

The Australian review by Jennifer Levasseur

Just say No at the MCG

Off to the MCG last night with my son, a long-time and long-suffering Tigers supporter to watch Richmond v St Kilda.  A draw- hah! I say.  At least a draw in Aussie Rules is not one of those dour nil-all matches in the other codes, and everyone, whether black/yellow or black/red/white left saying “That was a good game!”

Now, I don’t think that I’m turning into a gun-toting libertarian (yet) and perhaps it’s just my Grumpy Old Lady stirring, but one comes away from the MCG feeling put-upon and nagged.  Apart from the live-betting scores that flash up on the screen to enrage me at the ubiquity of corporatized gambling,  there is also a string of prohibitions and admonitions all aimed, no doubt, at lessening the MCG’s  public liability and protecting their assets. Here, according to the messages on the scoreboard, is  what you can’t do at the MCG

1. Smoke

2. Run onto the ground during a match

3. Go onto the ground after the game for a bit of kick to kick (a time-honoured tradition and the only way that a lot of us would ever get onto the MCG turf)

4. Take alcohol out of the stadium (or bring it in for that matter. Or drink full strength beer)

5. Stand on the seats

6. Put up an umbrella (flashed onto the screen the very minute a gust of virga eddied onto the MCG in its own little micro-climate)

7. Fall on the steps because it’s wet (ditto)

8. Be anti-social, and they gave a handy dob-a-hoon SMS number so that you could report them – quite a good idea actually.

I’m sure that there were more, and I’ll add them as I think of them (and you suggest them).  I was surprised that there wasn’t one about racial vilification  and they’ve obviously given up on people photographing, filming etc.  But my goodness, do we really need to be harangued and nagged the whole way through a match?  Do I dare say the words ‘nanny state’?