Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘Sweet Caress’ by William Boyd

2015, 464 p.

SPOILER ALERT

I must confess that the first thing I did after finishing this book was to jump onto Google to see if there ever was a female photographer called Amory Clay. That’s how convincing this book was, with its mixture of real characters and events. I couldn’t tell whether I had just read a fictionalized biography or whether the whole thing was Boyd’s creation- and it was the latter.

The book is two narratives. One is Amory’s journal from 1977 when she is living in a small cottage on the Scottish coastline, within sight of the Isle of Mull. She is widowed, her daughters have left home, she has retired from her career as photographer, and she is getting old. (Not that old- “only 70”, says she for whom 70 is not too far away!) The journal entries are not long, and are more a springboard to her memories, the other narrative, which flow more or less chronologically.

Amory was born on 7 March 1908, her father a writer, and the eldest of three children. Her sister Peggy was marked out early as a musical genius, her brother Alexander (Xan) was a strange, fey lad who collected guinea pigs but later had a career quite unheralded by his childhood. Her father went to World War I and returned mentally unstable. She was sent to boarding school, which she resented, as neither of her siblings were sent away, and she only later realized that there was a financial reason for her exile. On a vacation at home, her father tried to drive them both into a lake, an act that precipitated his committal to an asylum for many years and which, naturally enough, made Amory distrustful of her father and hurt by his heedlessness. If one wanted to play amateur psychiatrist, one could argue that this betrayal by her father shaped her rather distant relationships with men, who were either unavailable, in the case of the wealthy but married Cleve Finzi, or ambivalent in the case of Charbonneau. The pattern was broken when she married Sholto Farr, becoming Lady Farr, but this ended up in a betrayal of both her and her two daughters, of a different kind.

From her adolescence, encouraged by her uncle, she embarked on a career as a photographer which took her to Berlin, New York and Vietnam, ending finally in her cottage on the Scottish coast. The book is both a professional and personal biography. It is liberally interspersed (like a Sebald book) with black and white photographs, mostly taken by Amory. It was probably these photographs more than anything else that made me question whether this was a real autobiography or not. Quite frankly, they are very poor photographs, in no way reflective of a professional or artistic photographer. They are just like the Box Brownie photographs your Uncle Les might have taken in the 1950s.

The narrative of Amory’s life is told against a backdrop of real events and people, not in a Forrest Gump way, but as incidental background, off at an angle. This helps to add to the verisimilitude of the narrative by not straining the reader’s credulity by putting her into the centre of the action but forming a context for the places and situations in which she found herself. It only broke down for me in the last part of the book where it seemed that the author was grasping for a plot development that would encapsulate the 1970s and chose cult-behaviour in America. I don’t know if it was because the book was running out of steam, but this final phase of Amory’s life, where she tries to ‘rescue’ her daughter from the clutches of cult leader Tayborne Gaines, seemed rather melodramatic and superfluous.

I read this as a bookgroup read (in fact, I chose it on the basis of Restless which I very much enjoyed when I selected it as an earlier bookgroup read). Some of us felt rather uncomfortable that a male writer was writing from a female perspective, particularly in sex scenes. This didn’t worry me at all – I don’t like where you end up when you prohibit people from writing from anything other than their direct experience- and I thought that he wrote sex from a female perspective particularly well.

So did I feel cheated when I found that Amory Clay was a figment of William Boyd’s imagination? No, not at all. He did it well enough to make me wonder, and he created a credible female character against a backdrop of world events.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups

‘The Eye of the Sheep’ by Sofie Laguna

2015, 320 p.

I’ve often noticed that, by chance, I read two books in a row that seem to ‘speak’ to each other, even though I had not selected them for that reason. This happened again on reading Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep for my bookgroup, just after finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. At first glance, there may not be much of a link between a young boy growing up in Melbourne’s Altona in an unspecified time (1980s?) and a ‘smart’ mannequin marketed as an Artificial Friend for teenagers during another unspecified time in the future. What links them them is the narrator’s voice: flat, literal and yet crystal-sharp at the same time. Underlying their blinkered vision is a deep well of sadness and pain.

Author Sofie Laguna does not offer a diagnosis for Jimmy, but today we would probably say that he is “on the spectrum”. We meet him as a six-year old, obsessed with his instruction manuals for the household appliances, puzzled by other people, who he sees mechanistically as a series of ‘pipes’ and networks, linked by strings to other people. We see the world – his baffling, frustrating world- through his eyes, but it is not hard to imagine how he appeared from the other side to his teachers and other children. Here he is, when his teacher Mrs Stratham, knowing that he liked threes, asked him the answer to ‘three times thirty-three’.

The class went very quiet as they waited for me, the Detective of Threes, to solve the problem. I closed my eyes and saw more and more threes everywhere I looked. In every line of threes there was one other number- six, four, one, nine, seven, seven, one – but was the answer in the diagonal or the straight? Nobody in the class made a sound.

The threes kept coming. I couldn’t see beyond them; it was an infinity of threes. I went from still to running, with no time in between. I got off my seat and ran around the chairs and around Mrs Stratham’s desk and past the windows to the door and back again. “Three three three three!” I shouted, touching everything I could. The answer lay on the surfaces and every surface was a clue “Three, three, three”. The answer lay on the surfaces and every surface was a clue. “Three three three!”

Crash! The lizard’s aquarium shattered behind me. “Three, three, three!” I shouted.

p.75

Jimmy is frustrated at school, and home offers little respite. His mother, morbidly obese and asthmatic, smothers him with love. His father, who works at the nearby oil refinery, drinks too much Cutty Sark and abuses his wife: something that Jimmy and his older brother Robbie are powerless to stop, escaping into the flat grasslands behind their house or cowering in bed together at night until the violence stops. It is harrowing, and Jimmy responds in his own way:

Panic streamed through her and was transmitted to me. I ran from wall to wall, my cells spinning me around the rooms, one after the other. Hallway! Kitchen! Bedroom! Bathroom! Sitting room! Hallway! Nobody could stop me! …I was faster than the speed of light. I knew if it went on much longer I would disintegrate.

p.63

Jimmy is labelled as being “slow” and yet, he is too fast. He is not well-equipped for when his life spirals out of control, through no fault of his own. I found myself fearing for this child and I was spurred to keep reading to keep the story going so that he would be safe (yes, I know that’s illogical). I ended up in tears.

The real strength of this book, which won the Miles Franklin, is the power of the narrator’s voice, which doesn’t slip for a second. The author has disappeared completely behind this guileless yet perspicacious character, who becomes real: someone I cared and worried about enough to lie awake at night, thinking of him. Her book is an exploration of class and deprivation, but also love and fear, strength and weakness. It deserved its Miles Franklin Award.

My rating: 9.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup selection. (The other Ladies Who Say Ooooh (my daughter’s name for my Bookgroup) loved it too)

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen

2001, 653 p.

Perhaps this post should be titled ‘Re-reading The Corrections’, because I read it in 2002- think, nearly twenty years ago. I was interested to see what I wrote about it in my pre-blog reading journal back then:

I can’t remember having such varying feelings about a book. It is really a tragedy mixed with farce. In its tragic parts, I felt uncomfortable at the harsh glare of reality: in its farcical sections I felt bored and tired of the author’s look-at-me cuteness and self-conscious wittiness. It is, as the author admits, five novellas and for me, the sections dealing with the cruise and the Lithuanian venture could easily have been dropped.

But the family dynamics were brilliant: the well-meaning but manipulative mother who wants to bring the family together for one last Christmas; the father bewildered by his Parkinson’s Disease; a psychologically-hypochondriac son bullied by his wife and children; a son who throws away a career because of sexual indiscretion and ends up doing very shady deals in Lithuania, and a daughter who discovers her lesbianism only while wrecking her own career as a chef because of an affair with both her employers. Incisive, current, but very in-your-face. 8/10

So how does it shape up 20 years later? I was more impatient this time of the self-indulgent length of 653 pages, the long lists of objects, and sheer show-off-iness of the writing. I just wanted him to shut up, frankly. Too much talk, too much self-indulgent angst.

It now seems very much of its time – pre September 11 and the GFC, it’s a time of American bombast and certainty, where greed was still good (if somewhat grubby) and the American viewpoint dominated the world. Trump, the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction and the whole Middle East mess that it gave rise to, and COVID have punctured all that.

The search for the ‘Great American Novel’, fat and sneering and self-important, seems now to be a very masculine endeavour, with Franzen being likened to Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Don de Lillo, Thomas Pynchon etc. (all men, I note). Actually, I think that Elizabeth Strout should be in this list too, and her books are so different from these. Yes, there are deeply flawed and unlikeable characters in her books too, but there isn’t the superciliousness in these other contenders.

Of course, I’m not the same reader either. Twenty years on, Parkinson’s is a much more sensitive topic, given that someone I love dearly has it. Twenty years later, having sat beside both my parents as they died, I understand more about death and age. Hell, twenty years later, I tick the 65+ age box now. Now I’m the grandmother and mother-in-law. Given that Franzen himself is now 61, I wonder if he would write the same book.

This is an unkind book that is far, far, far too long. Twenty years later, I’d downgrade that 8 to a 6.5

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups

Read because: it was a Bookgroup selection

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

2008, 336 p

I suggested this as a read for our bookgroup about three years ago, and it finally arrived! Fortunately I hadn’t read it while I was waiting, so I came to it ‘fresh’ even though it was published in 2008 and won the Booker Prize that same year. It is told in the voice of Balram Halwai, a village boy made good as an ‘entrepreneur’, who writes a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Describing himself as a ‘half-baked Indian’, he also sees himself as a White Tiger: “the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation”. Unlike the rest of his family, he takes (and makes) his opportunities to get ahead, and escape the destiny of custom and servitude.

He tells us from the very start that he killed his employer, Ashok, one of two brothers who along with their father, hire him as a driver. Forced to leave school despite his intelligence, Balram takes the opportunity to become the main driver when Ashok, and his American wife Pinky Madam move to Delhi. There Ashok becomes enmeshed in the corruption of political figures. When by p.285 Balram does finally kill his master, we have come to share his disdain for Ashok’s weakness and the dog-eat-dog world in which Balram lives. While the actual murder takes several pages, Balram then makes huge mental leaps over the consequences of the murder, especially for his family. He is completely unrepentant, on several levels.

The most striking image that I took away from the book was that of the ‘rooster coop’ where individuals are hemmed in by their family pressures to stay within that coop, and not even seek to escape. It is a self-imposed structure that keeps workers honest, even against their own interests. This is something that I have thought about when travelling in second or third world countries: why don’t people rob me? Why is it acceptable for me to move through their society so heedlessly, when my spending money for just that day could make a change to their lives?

One of the things that I loved most about this book was Balram’s narrative voice, which leaps off the page. He is a sardonic, self-serving and perceptive humble-bragger and like all good entrepreneurs, he takes you along with the dream, no matter your misgivings. The book is told completely from Balram’s point of view, although the author gets in his own critique of post-colonialism, corruption, loyalty and the deadening effect of the supposedly-extinct caste system. It is never really explained why Balram is writing to Wen Jiabao, except as the head of the rising power within Asia as distinct from the rotting and dying power of the old India.

I enjoyed this book, its structure as a series of letters and the sheer vitality and front of Balram himself. The author Aravind Adiga has had a life nothing like that of Balram, but he says that Balram is a composite of the many men he heard talking while they hanging around drivers’ ranks and train stations, in slums and in servants quarters. The narrative voice is so strong that you feel as if you are hearing it direct, even though it is as much of an artifice as the epistolary structure that Adiga has employed. Still- I don’t think that I have read another book quite like it.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup.

‘The Chase’ by Ida Mann

1986, 217 p.

Our face-to-face book went into hibernation during the lockdown throughout 2020, so when received our most recent read, The Chase, an autobiography by Ida Mann, we opened the box with anticipation. But what a smell ! the books had obviously been unread for a very long time (probably pre-dating COVID) and they were very musty. And having finished the book now, there’s probably a good reason why this book has not been particularly popular. Published in 1986, it’s very much a product of an earlier time, drawing on fairly pragmatic and workmanlike ideas of autobiography, and expressing attitudes for which Ida Mann would be condemned today (and indeed, in the 1980s as well).

If you’re wondering ‘Who is Ida Mann?’, you’re not alone. She was a world-famous ophthalmologist, born in 1893 in England, who had already reached the peak of her research career when she emigrated to Australia with her husband Profession William Guy, an acclaimed cancer research in 1949. After her husband died in 1952, she continued her work in ophthalmology, researching the prevalence of eye disease (especially trachoma) in indigenous populations, and speaking at World Health Organization conferences in many places throughout the world. She was also an inveterate traveller.

As might be expected from a woman steeped in the sciences, the book is very much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end endeavour. The presence of lines of verse scattered through the text does little to dispel this impression, reflecting the old-fashioned nature of the narrative rather than the author’s literariness. In its tone, the book reminded me of military histories, where every single individual has to be named and acknowledged, and Christmas family letters regaling the reader with travel tales to exotic places (from the days when we still could travel). Neither genre particularly appeals to me. The book (which admittedly has been edited from an even lengthier text) descends into an extended travelogue at the end.

This is not to detract from her professional achievements, which are many. One hundred and forty three published papers, a string of scholarships and fellowships, a CBE and DBE attest to her hard work and professional reputation within the field of ophthalmology. She was, however, no feminist. Just as Margaret Thatcher did little for the cause of feminism, Ida saw the ‘nonsense about women’s rights’ as unnecessary, because if you wanted a job enough, you would get it. She was vehemently opposed to the NHS, and it was its introduction, along with her husband’s ill health, that prompted her shift across the world. She expresses little empathy for patients, preferring the research aspect of her work. She was dismissive of the Australian slap-dash attitude when the pure genetic lines of her research mice were compromised because insufficient care was taken. Particularly repellent was her classification of the Aboriginal people she examined for eye disease into the categories based on their likeness to ‘us’: Similar, Almost, Rather, Hardly and Not-at-all. (p. 150)

Yet this intensely driven and pragmatic woman had a mystical side as well. She writes often of her dreams, particularly one vivid dream where she was presented with two doors. In the dream, she chose the door that opened onto sunshine, blue sky and fear, and this dream changed her life. She rejected the life of an office-worker that her parents had chosen for her, and became proactive in choosing and pursuing her own career. As in most autobiographies, there are elisions and silences, most particularly in her response to her husband’s death and a rather curious allusion to incestuous feelings towards her older brother, Arthur.

You’re unlikely to find a copy of this autobiography very easily. In a way, that is a pity because autobiographies of female scientists are not common. On the other hand, the stilted narrative, incessant name-dropping and dismissive individualism are not appealing features of this autobiography. Perhaps Ida Mann needs a biographer who can rescue her life from her own narrative.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: CAE as the March book for The Ladies Who Say Oooh (i.e. my face-to-face bookgroup). The other ladies enjoyed the book more than I did, and were more appreciative of her achievements than I was.

Ida Mann appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, so I have included her on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘Nine Parts of Desire: the Hidden World of Islamic Women’ by Geraldine Brooks

(1995) 2008, 272p.

Given that this book was written in 1995, (reprinted in 2008 with a new afterword) I hoped that her analysis of the lives of Islamic Women in Middle East countries might have been rendered redundant. That hope has not been realized. Despite the Arab Spring, the position of women in Islamic countries remains parlous, and possibly even worse than when Brooks wrote this book prior to 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the wars that followed in its wake.

Geraldine Brooks, who was born in Australia, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent for many years, although she is probably better known now for her historical fiction. While she was working as the Middle East bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, she was frustrated by the customs that made her life as a journalist so difficult, compared with her male fellow journalists. Then she noted that her colleague and translator, Sahar, had begun wearing the hijab. Curious about why Sahar had adopted it, she realized that as a woman she had access to women’s experience that was closed to male journalists.

For almost a year I fretted and kicked at the Middle East’s closed doors. Then, thanks to Sahar, I looked up and noticed the window that was open only to me.

p. 7 1995 edition

Taking on Islamic dress herself, she sought out women who were still working as journalists, politicians and activists. Many women told her that, historically, Islam provided an improvement on women’s conditions, that the Prophet himself was pro-women, and that Islamic dress provided a respite from the male gaze. She was not convinced:

Once I began working on this book, I looked everywhere for examples of women trying to reclaim Islam’s positive messages, trying to carry forward into the twentieth century the reformist zeal with which Muhammad had remade the lives of many women (other than his own wives and the Muslim army’s war captives) in the first Muslim community at Medina. It turned out to be a frustrating search. In most places the direction of the debate seemed to be exactly the reverse. Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian and Afghani women were seeing a curtain come down on decades of women’s liberation as Islamic leaders in their countries turned to the most exclusionary and inequitable interpretations. For those women who struggled against the tide, the results were a discouraging trio of marginalization, harassment and exile.

p. 232, 1995 edition

The title of the book is taken from a quote from Ali ibn Abu Taleb, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and the founder of the Shiite sect of Islam. “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men”. This sounds like an invitation to male lasciviousness to me, and the desires that Brooks explores in this book are not sexual. Each chapter starts with a relevant quote from the Koran.

Chapter 1, The Holy Veil talks about Brooks’ own interview with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was President of Iran between 1989-1997, for which Brooks wore the chador. She writes about the variations of Islamic dress in different Middle East countries, and the effect of Iran’s theocratic revolution. Chapter 2 “Whom No Man Shall Have Deflowered Before Them” discusses female genital mutilation and its absence in the Koran itself, honour killing, and the paradox between sexual licence for men and repression for women. Chapter 3 “Here Come the Brides” looks at Islamic marriage while Chapter 4 “The Prophet’s Women” looks at Muhammad’s own family life, making the point that many of the revelations from God seemed to be particularly apposite for Muhammad’s own situation. Chapter 5 “Converts” focuses on Janet, an American who had married and converted to Islam, and Janet’s American friend Margaret. Both women complied completely with the demands of their husband and in-laws. Chapter 6 “Jihad is for Women, Too” looks at the paradox of women incorporated into the military forces in Islamic countries, and the empowerment (within limits) that this sometimes provided. Chapter 7 “A Queen” looks at the situation of the American-born Queen Noor of Jordan, a country that at the time offered the most hope for political liberalism. Chapter 8 “The Getting of Wisdom” examines women’s education in different Middle East countries, with differing degrees of segregation and the increasing presence of fundamentalism. Chapter 9 “Risky Business” looks at women’s role in the workforce, and Chapter 10 “Politics, With and Without a Vote” looks at the varied (and decreasing) political roles available to women. Ironically, some Islamic women were elected in hard-line Iran, but I sense that her political acceptability was increased by her persecution under the Shah which made her a striking example of the repressiveness of pro-Western politics. She picks up on the campaign by Saudi women to be able to drive- something that is shamefully still a travesty. Chapter 11 “Muslim Women’s Games” addresses the women-only Islamic Women’s Games and in Chapter 11 “A Different Drummer” Brooks herself gets physical by taking a belly-dancing course.

In her conclusion “Beware of the Dogma” she comes out most strongly with her own conclusions and the question of how we, as Europeans, should respond. She argues that “In an era of cultural sensitivity, we need to say that certain cultural baggage is contraband in our countries and will not be admitted.” (p.238) At the time of writing, America did not have laws banning female genital mutilation (Australia does). She argues – but does not believe that it will ever be accepted – that Islamic women should have a right to asylum on the grounds of “well-founded fear of persecution” as a matter of course.

I have read this book before, and I think that I am even more conscious of the issues that she raises, especially after the Arab Spring sputtered out. Her criticism is most strongly directed at Saudi Arabia, a country which has assumed even more importance on the world stage since Trump. She is strong in her condemnation, especially in her conclusion, but she avoids the reflexive Islamophobia of, say, Ayan Hirsi Ali (who lost me with her association with the American Enterprise Institute). Her interviews mainly deal with middle-class and educated women, but that probably reflects the milieu in which she was working and the contacts that she made. She seems rather oblivious to the effect that her Judaism – something that she does not hide- may have had on her informants.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘The Human Stain’ by Philip Roth

roth_human_stain

2000, 361p.

This book opens with two affairs. The first, that “everybody knows” about is that of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, an affair forever imprinted on my mind with the memory of his pointy, reddened face and jabbing finger as he declared that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”. I’m glad that through her really-worth-watching TedX talk, Monica has left the blue dress and “that woman” behind. But with Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” and now the accusations against Biden, it feels as if this ghastly American reality-show just keeps on going.

The second affair, the focus of this book, is between Coleman Silk, retired Classics professor and Faunia Farley, an illiterate cleaner half his age. Perhaps ‘affair’ is the wrong word: Silk is a widower, Faunia has fled a violent marriage, and they are both consenting adults. But Coleman Silk is already a disgraced man, as far as his employment at Athena College is concerned, from which he resigned in the aftermath of controversy over using the term ‘spooks’ to refer to two students who had never turned up to class. Although he was asking whether the students were invisible phantoms, ‘spooks’ had also, as a subsidiary, less-used meaning, a racist derogatory connotation as a term for African Americans. In what Silk (and Roth, for that matter) see as “political correctness gone mad”, Delphine Roux, a fellow academic in the humanities faculty, advocates for the young female student referred to as a ‘spook’, and then later for Faunia Farley whom she sees as the victim in an uneven power relatioinship.

Sex, race and religion are fracture lines in many societies, and in America in particular – and especially in its politics- they verge on being obsessions. Coleman Silk, successful, white Jewish professor, is not what he appears and in this book, the narrator Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in many of Roth’s books, decides to tell Silk’s story and reveal his secrets. Keeping secrets always has a cost, and in this book, Silk and his family carry the burden, in some cases even without knowing.

I have a love/hate relationship with Philip Roth. I can see the virtuosity of his writing but it is so wordy, so excessive. Sentences stretch on for a whole page and it is as if the narrative is being shouted at you. The fact that chapters go on at length doesn’t help. Too much, too much.

There’s a swaggering maleness about his writing, and the constant presence of sex as a prism for viewing the world makes me feel uncomfortable. In this book, Roth’s own conservatism is quite clear as, through Coleman, he fulminates against post-modernism, literary theory, education standards, affirmative action, political correctness and hypocrisy. But Roth also needles those sore points of present-day American society so acutely: the freedom to invent yourself, the American Dream, Jewishness in American society, sexuality, Vietnam and the biggest one of all, race. He’s brilliant. He’s insufferable. And somehow, he manages to do all these things in a very American, male, ‘look at me’ way that, almost despite yourself, demands that you do.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: CAE book groups.

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

honeyman_oliphant

2017, 383p.

Eleanor Oliphant is a lonely thirty-year old woman. Just not ‘self-contained’ or without friends, she is bone-achingly lonely:

There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole. When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn’t hold me, touch me. (p 269)

She works in the back-office of a design company in Glasgow, the only job she has ever had.  She is prickly, judgmental, oblivious and agonizingly awkward.  Nothing comes easily; she is suspicious and sees the worst in people, while affecting a supercilious superiority.  It is no wonder that she repels people, and becomes the butt of their jokes.  Except, perhaps, for Raymond from I.T., a disheveled ‘techie’ who calls for her help when a old man collapses in the street. In that act of kindness, Eleanor is gradually brought into a circle of other kind people – not saints, but just ordinary people acting with everyday kindness. Small things, like haircuts and a cat, gradually put some colour into a very bleak life.

We gradually put together Eleanor’s back-story. We learn that she has a burn scar on her face, that she has been the victim of domestic abuse, that she spent many years in foster care and  that she has weekly talks with her mother, who is a truly evil, cruel woman. Honeyman’s control of unfolding Eleanor’s story is masterful. At one stage I felt that it was all falling into place too easily, until a twist at the end that I will not reveal. Endings are often difficult, and I think that I enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book better than the last part.  I wish that the twist was explored more deeply, but on the other hand, I didn’t need it straightened out and explained either.

Eleanor’s voice is distinctive: arch and highly educated, it also reveals a sardonic but needy humour. Honeyman sustains this voice throughout, and as a reader you are both repelled and yet sympathetic towards her.

Although I normally avoid best-sellers that have stickers on the cover, I really enjoyed this book, and devoured it over a couple of days. I found myself laughing out loud in several places, and tears brimming just a few pages later.

My rating: 9

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups as our March 2020 read.

‘Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John’ by Helen Trinca

Trinca_Madeleine

2013, 243 p.

The author of this biography, Helen Trinca, came to know of Madeleine St John through one of her books. So did I.  For me it was The Women in Black, which I read back in 2011 as part of an online Australian Literature bookgroup and reviewed here. Erroneously suspecting that it was autobiographical, it seemed to me at the time to be a “happy, satisfying read” and “a small nugget of a book, affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic.” The film, The Ladies in Black (I hadn’t noticed the change in title before) was released in 2018, and it also struck me as a “feel-good, look-good” movie.

Having now read Trinca’s biography of St John, I couldn’t have been more wrong about The Women in Black being autobiographical.  And if I found the book “affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic”, perhaps that says more about St John’s skill as a writer than anything else, because the author was certainly none of those things.  Instead, she was prickly, bitter and more likely to hold a grudge than indulge in nostalgia.

Born in 1941 while her father was with the A.I.F. in Palestine, Madeleine St John’s mother Sylvette was Romanian, but styled herself as French after arriving in Sydney in 1934. Her father was the barrister and later M.P. Edward (Ted) St John, from a blue-blood conservative family.  The surname, pronounced ‘Sinjin’ niggled at me – something about the Voyager maritime disaster– and Trinca’s book reminds us that it was during his maiden speech as a Parliamentarian that St John attacked his own party and called for  second Royal Commission into the accident (which, when it finally occurred, completely overturned the findings of the first, flawed Royal Commission). But the Ted St John who appears in this biography is not so much the politician, as a father – and in Madeleine St John’s eyes, a very poor one.  Her parent’s marriage was an unhappy one. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Madeleine and her sister Colette were packed off to boarding school. When Madeleine was twelve, her parents divorced and soon afterwards her mother Sylvette committed suicide. Her father badly bungled telling his daughters, and remarried too quickly, to Val.

As Madeleine St John was too ready to tell everyone, her father’s perfidy and betrayal lay at the heart of her own world-view. Her anger and bitterness about it warped nearly every aspect of her life right up to her death. She was mercurial, cruel and self-centred, allowing people to come close and then spurning them when they became too close. The irony is that even though she despised her father and idolized her mother, she combined traits from both of them.  While denying all her life that her mother had committed suicide, she shared Sylvette’s fragile mental health, and suffered depression and breakdowns. She certainly shared her father’s black-and-white views about what was right, and refused to compromise them for anyone. For the sake of her own principles, however she defined them, she often acted against her own interests and burnt many people. She was more like her father than she would ever have admitted.

Madeleine enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1959 and circulated amongst that golden generation who were to head off to England: Clive James, Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford, Les Murray, Robert Hughes, Mungo MacCallum. In this testosterone-heavy atmosphere, she became one of the sub-editors of Honi Soit (the university newspaper) but was never published in it. She was part of a group of eight girls, dubbed ‘The Octopus’ who joined up with the Sydney University Dramatic Society and regularly met at a cafe in Manning House.  She married and moved with her husband, Christopher Tillam, to America where he embarked on a film-making career. As emotionally brittle as she was, it was no surprise that the marriage faltered. Madeleine moved to England where she worked in a succession of bookshops and antique shops, managed to get council housing and developed an image that combined a  stylishness and snobbery that belied her meagre income. She became rigidly religious, and spent years – even decades- writing a biography of Mme Blavatsky, the Theosophist, which she ended up burning (and which I would have been quite interested to read, really.) She was not published until 1993, at the age of 52, when she released The Women in Black, set in the sun-drenched Sydney of her own adolescence. Her three other works were set in her own London-based suburb Notting Hill, one of which (The Essence of the Thing)  was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, thus bringing her to the attention of the Australian literary scene.

She did not particularly welcome the acclaim that publication brought her, and although it gave her the financial means to travel, she was no happier than she had been previously.  She abhorred the thought that she would be embraced as an Australian by the Australian literary scene, when she had spent all her adult life putting her Australian nationality behind her. In poor health, she eschewed the attempts at reconciliation by her step-mother Val, and continued to draw in and then reject her friends, who would be bewildered by her change towards them.  In poor health from emphysema, she became increasingly concerned to shape her image after her rapidly-approaching death, rejecting one literary executor for another, and demanding the return of letters.

I think that Madeleine St John would have been infuriated by this biography, where the author treats her with a cool impassiveness. She does not buy into St John’s histrionics and manipulations, but recognizes patterns in her behaviour and makes some sense of it, without condoning it. The book lightens, as did St John’s own life, once she achieved her break-through publications, but for Trinca (and me, for that matter), her writing only highlighted the paradox between the writer and her work. Trinca keeps her eyes steadily on Madeleine the character, and there is no in-depth analysis of the books as such. Her footnotes pay testament to the author’s diligence in tracking down friends and acquaintances – none of whom could give unalloyed praise for St John. She was fortunate to be given access to a collection of audiotapes recorded by St John that were left in the keeping of a friend.  She read St John’s own statements about her life with a judicious eye, and combed through the lively but self-serving correspondence that other people had kept, much against St. John’s wishes. Using this network of friends and acquaintances, Trinca manages to weave a background against which St John’s life can be placed; a background that captures the heady optimism of university life in the early 1960s, the tangled connections amongst an intellectual and creative largely expatriate milieu, and the continued warp and weft of family background, no matter how much someone might want to distance themselves from it.

There are a lot of people in this book, and I was often glad of the index to remind myself who was who. It was a little frustrating that the index was organized by surname, whereas the text referred to people, in a familiar tone, by first name. More than once I found myself having to scan the whole index, until I found the first name mentioned in the text.

This is an excellent biography, that captures well the ambivalence of the biographer towards her subject.  It won the Prime Ministers Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2014, and was short-listed for several other awards. The summary on the back cover of the book mentions sadness, tragedy, love and perseverence.  I don’t know if I could be so charitable. Self-centredness, control and vindictiveness spring more to mind for me. And the mismatch between St John’s writing and her own life? I remain mystified, and I suspect that even after all this exhaustive research, I think Trinca might be too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from:  CAE bookgroup and read for The Ladies Who Say Oooh.

aww2020

I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

 

‘The Tyrant’s Novel’ by Tom Keneally

Keneally_tyrant

2003, 292 p.

I read this book soon after it was published in 2003, when the idea of locking up ‘illegal arrivals’ without visas in detention centres,  introduced in the 1990s by the Keating Government, had been ramped up to the the mandatory off-shore detention of all arrivals by boat under what was euphemistically called the ‘Pacific Solution‘.  The book  has only increased in power in the 17 years since, especially with the very public face of Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, whose book No Friend But the Mountains received widespread critical acclaim. It’s as if Keneally’s book has been brought to life.

Keneally’s novel is in three parts.  Part 1, ‘The Visitor’s Preface’, told in the first person, frames the novel. An unnamed journalist narrator accompanies a female colleague to a thinly disguised Villawood Detention Centre. There he meets ‘Alan Sheriff’, the name adopted by an Iraqi refugee incarcerated there, who proceeds to tell him “the saddest and silliest story you will ever hear”.

The bulk of the body is in Part 2, ‘Alan Sheriff’s Story’. It is also told in the first person as a memoir, although on occasions Alan breaks off to note the detention-centre conditions under which the story is being told.  ‘Alan Sheriff’ is a writer, who after the moderately successful publication of a book of short stories in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, had been working quietly on a novel. When tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning, he puts the novel aside, feeling that his life and work is futile in the face of his grief. Suddenly the summons arrives from Great Uncle (a thinly disguised Saddam Hussein) for him to write a novel within a month which will be published under Great Uncle’s name.  His loyalties to friends who have also become enmeshed in Great Uncle’s web of power, and his fears for their safety, push him to acquiesce.

The novel closes with ‘After-Tale’ which tells of how ‘Alan Sheriff’ has ended up in the detention centre.

Keneally has made a number of authorial decisions here which are interesting.  First, as an article by Caroline Baum reveals, the scenario in the detention centre and the friendship with ‘Alan Shepherd’ are real, and in her opinion, insufficiently disguised. Her article raises questions about the ethics of an author’s use of real people in what is purported to be fiction.

Second, he has decided to replace the Iraqi names of his characters with anglicized ones: Alan Sheriff, Matt McBrien, Andrew Kennedy, Sarah. This adds a sense of identification for an Australian westernized reader, but it is also jarring. I’m not sure if the trade off between making a reader think “This could be me” is worth in effect stripping his characters of all their cultural identity. In Keneally’s hands,  the story is based amongst people of an intellectual/entertainment industry elite, whose lifestyles are not that different from ours.

Third, he does not actually name Saddam Hussein, although in his afterword, he acknowledges his debt to Mark Bowden’s article “Tales of the Tyrant”in the Atlantic Monthly May 2002. Certainly, reading the article after finishing the novel (which I very much encourage you to do), you can see where Keneally has picked up the threads of his own story.

Things happen abruptly in this novel, so much so that you find yourself re-reading to see if you had understood it properly.  Keneally has a rather clumsy attempt at mirroring Shiite/Sunni theology through ‘mediationist’ and ‘intercessionists’, which only muddies the story. I’m not sure that I was convinced by Alan Sheriff’s abandonment of his own novel, and it is an important point in the plot. I can understand why Keneally has chosen to anglicize the names, but I feel condescended to as a reader; as if Keneally expects that I cannot identify with names from another culture.

However, the continued bloody-mindedness of our mandatory detention system has, if anything, worsened, and the increasing presence of so many ‘strongmen’ in politics world-wide means that this book is more relevant today than it was in 2003. Written with a clear political purpose at the time, those politics are even more urgent now.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups as a book group reading amongst The Ladies Who Say Oooh