Tag Archives: Book reviews

‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: a memoir’ by Peter Godwin


2006, 340 p.

A memoir is not the same as an autobiography.  An autobiography is driven by the ongoing elapse of time, where chronology imposes an order onto the narrative.  A memoir, on the other hand, is a construction placed over events which can be quite independent of time.  It is, in its own way, just as much an argument as a non-fiction book can be.

Godwin uses the metaphor of the solar eclipse- the crocodile eating the sun- to frame his memoir of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe.  And oh what a descent into darkness it is.  We can read in our newspapers of the inflation, the cholera etc etc and yet be none the wiser about how people continue to live in Zimbabwe (as distinct from merely surviving).  For me, it was the footage of the bashed Morgan Tsvangirai, right in the middle of an election campaign in the glare of the world’s media, that reinforced the ruthlessness, defiance and absolute power of an autocratic regime.  If this could happen to the leader of the opposition, what was happening to people without an international political profile?

But, just as much as a political commentary, this book is about being a son and identity.  Godwin’s parents are becoming increasingly frail.  Peter, the author is seeking citizenship in America where he works as a journalist, angling for African assignments that will enable him to be return to see his parents .  His sister Georgina works as an activist broadcaster and would be endangered by a return to Zimbabwe, while another sister was killed by gangs several years earlier.  At times I just wanted to shake him- why was he allowing his work to dictate when or if he would see his parents- just go there without waiting for an employer to pick up the tab.  Isn’t there some obligation on children?- I’m old enough to think that there is.  But then again, what if parents absolutely refuse to move from a situation that puts their children into danger in meeting these obligations?

The twist in this memoir is the author’s discovery that his father has hidden from his children his  Jewish identity and his lifestory as sole survivor of his family from the holocaust.  As well as shaking the author’s confidence that he ‘knows’ his father, this knowledge leads him to reconsider the role of the outsider, statelessness and exile in  twenty-first century Zimbabwe as well.

Although it would be easy to typecast the author’s family as stubborn white colonialist farmers in a changed political situation, it is not as clearcut as this.  The opposition to Mugabe’s rule seems to be class-based as much as colour-based, and many of the relationships that Godwin’s parents have with neighbours,  fellow professionals and employees cross racial boundaries.

But, as with all  people born into a post-colonial society, there is a mixture of guilt, self-interest, love of country and one’s own national identity.  Godwin’s mother, in trying to explain to her son why she cannot leave, turns to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Roman Centurion’s Song: Roman Occupation of Britain, A. D. 300”.  She chooses this prominent poet of the Empire, knowing that he is writing from the ‘invader’s’ perspective:

Legate, I come to you in tears- My cohort ordered home!

I’ve served in Britain forty years.  What should I do in Rome?

Here is my heart, my soul, my mind- the only life I know,

I cannot leave it all behind.  Command me not to go!”

‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’  is a beautifully crafted memoir.  The book starts with the cremation of his father, and closes with the same episode, in exactly the same words- evoking for me the circularity and rhythm of the eclipse metaphor he has chosen.  The author’s deliberate and self-consciousness construction of his narrative at times threatens to become a bit forced, but the raw conflict of loyalities on so many levels is the stronger quality of this book.

‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Caryl Phillips


2005, 214 p

W. C. Field described Bert Williams, the real-life subject of this novel, as “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew”, and this paradox is just one of many in this book.  Bert Williams was a light-skinned West Indian but adopted as his stage persona a black-faced “coon” character.  He consciously adopted this stage identity as he applied his cork makeup, and scrupulously removed both after the performance: something that his fellow negro performers could not do.  Despite the increasing discomfort of his colleagues with his depiction of a shuffling, feebleminded “coon” , he responded to the acclaim of white audiences by continuing to play the character, eventually as the only “blackface” amongst Ziegfield’s Follies.  And yet, his act raised the profile of Negro performers, heading Booker T. Washington to note that “He has done more for our race than I have.  He has smiled his way into people’s hearts, I have been obliged to fight my way”.  And yet, this “smile” is so ambiguous and shallow: white audiences boycotted his attempts to move beyond the “nigger” stereotype, and he was trapped into continuing to play the character in order to maintain his popularity.

This book is told from multiple points of view, particularly from the middle of the book onwards.  I’m not sure if this narrative style was as prominent at the start, but I certainly noticed it as the book went on, and it seemed to mirror the increasing disintegration of his inner personality, marriage and stage success as it was perceived more and more by others.  The narrative is interspersed with film scripts, newspaper reports etc (that I assume are fictional, but I wouldn’t know) in a sort of papier-mache, constructed effect that emphasizes the emptiness of the man underneath.

The tone of the book is fairly simple and direct.  It raises big issues, though, about race, identity, performance and popular acclaim through the story of one man.

‘The High Price of Heaven’ by David Marr

1999, 287p.

This is a collection of David Marr’s Sydney Morning Herald essays from 1999, extended and revised into a collection that critiques fundamentalist Christianity and its attitudes towards sex, censorship, drugs and pleasure more generally.

It’s vintage Marr- witty, brittle, bitter and bombastic. He certainly doesn’t hold back at all on his dislike for John Howard, George Pell, Peter Jensen and the Sydney religious elite.

Of course, a book of “current” essays from 1999 becomes dated, and yet many things remain the same. Howard may be gone, but the religious influence is still with us- unchanged in the case of Jensen and Pell; dominant still with Rudd but somehow, I sense, taking a slightly different direction.  I haven’t read Marr’s latest book on the Hensen controversy, but I suspect that it takes up where this book left off.

So, I was interested in Juliette Hughes’ review of David Marr’s new book The Henson Case.  She writes, in an observation that is equally applicable to The High Price of Heaven:

Marr is as ever a pleasure to read even when you largely disagree with him about the subject, as I do. But it’s difficult when you disagree with much of the other side, too. The trouble is that most people are well meaning and the subject is incendiary. You’re either a pedophile voyeur or a prudish ignoramus; nothing in between…Marr’s fervid advocacy admits of no equivocation; this discussion begins mezzo-forte, crescendoing rapidly to fortissimo and stays there, attacking predictable targets, the dullard Christian right, the unspeakable Sydney shock jocks

Much of Juliette Hughes’ review resonated with my own uneasiness about the Henson controversy.  I was surprised that so many people so quickly adopted such clear-cut and definitive opinions.  Almost a year on, I’m still undecided- and think that I may remain this way- about the photographs, the dividing line between art and exploitation, and the contract (if any)  between the creator and the beholder.

‘Crossing the River’ by Caryl Phillips

1993, 237 p.

This is a very post-modern novel of the African diaspora, written by a West Indian author, raised in England. There are multiple narratives, bookended by an opening lament of a father forced to sell his children into slavery in Africa, and closed by a lament about diaspora and dispossession which ties together the four stories in between.

The four stories are those of the sold children, but untethered in time and place.  The first voice is that of a slave liberated by his master to move to Liberia, writing letters back to his master. The letters are unanswered, and he is unaware that his master is travelling to Liberia to meet him.  The narrative shifts between an epistolatory form, and the ‘straight’ narrative of the master’s journey from America to Liberia in search of his former slave.

The second voice is that of Martha, the second sold child, an old Negro woman, travelling for the West Coast in the post civil-war era.  She is abandoned because she is too old and slow.

The third voice comes through the journal of the slave trader, moored off the African coast for an inordinate amount of time while he collects more cargo. He reports on the deaths and escapes of his cargo as the boat waits in humid waters until there are sufficient bodies for the trip to be profitable.  The author captures the tone of the journal well, couched in the language of late 18th century piety and commercialism, and it is chilling in its banality at times.

Finally, the fourth story is a long one, taking up about one third of the book.  This voice belongs to Joyce, the white wife of a man arrested for black market activities during WWII who starts up a relationship with a black GI, who represents the third ‘sold’ child.  This section is told in very short (1-2 page) discontinuous entries; weaving back and forth over the war years.

So- the three sold children, but told at different jumps in the unfolding history and in different countries (Liberia, US, UK), and interwoven with the stories of the grief-striken African father, the slave-trader, and an omniscient narrator intoning rather academically on diaspora as a phenomenon.  I really wondered how the author was going to carry this off- how on earth was he going to draw all these disparate bits into a whole? But he did, deftly, cleverly and succinctly in the last few pages.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I feel deep admiration for the sheer virtuoisity and intent of the book, but I found myself rather distanced from the stories: it was almost as if the technical cleverness of the author’s intention and execution overshadowed the human aspects.  And yet, even as I write this, I wonder if this is what the author intended all along.

‘The Great Game’ by Peter Hopkirk

1990, 524 p

The Great Game commences with an execution- that of Capt Charles Stoddart and Capt Arthur Conolly by the Emir Nasrulla Khan in Bokhara in 1842.  Ironically enough, it was Capt Conolly who coined the term “The Great Game” , later adopted by Rudyard Kipling, to describe the political, military and strategic manoevres in Central Asia. There are many such vignettes in this book of crazy-brave  explorers and adventurers, both Russian and British, who surveyed and fought over the remote but strategically crucial area of the ‘stans’ that separated Russia from India.

Although the book covers the nineteenth century, the book has a cyclical feel as one set of adventurers takes up the baton from the previous ones, and borders move northward then southward only to move northward yet again.  Taken from the long view, it is clear that the political parties in Britain had consistently different foreign policy approaches: the Tories were always Russo-phobic and more inclined to opt for a military solution while the Liberals or Whigs feared overstretch and preferred to work through treaties.  Likewise, there was an ongoing tussle between the military and the politicians for control of the agenda, in both Britain and Russia. Neither approach yielded a permanent solution or outright victor.

Hopkirk’s use of vignettes helps to tether our attention and emotional response on particular men and events in what is a relentless succession of campaigns.  His book is engagingly written, although I found his cliff-hanger questions at the end of each chapter rather tedious after a while.  Although he commenced the book being fairly evenhanded, by the end of the book the Russians were more clearly identified as “the enemy”, and he increasingly resorted to that dead, pompous military citation language that is used to describe “our” heroes.

There were only three maps, but I found them indispensable and far more exhaustive than I would have imagined- almost without fail I could locate the positions he was describing.  I would have appreciated a 20th/21st century map superimposed over the 19th century one- although such a map would run the danger of being outdated, I suppose, as different countries assert their independence, as recent events in Georgia have shown.

I am left with the overwhelming impression that this is one wild place that is largely impervious to the designs that ‘great powers’ might have on it.  I think I’m with the UK envoy to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles (surely a name truly fitting for a Great Game player!) : this is a no-win situation.

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

2008, 300p.

I really don’t like my chances of reading the Booker Prize shortlist before it is announced on 14 October, especially as this is the only one I have read!  I always try to read the Miles Franklin shortlist of Australian literature, and usually finish the night before it is announced! But the Booker is usually beyond me.

But I was excited about reading The Secret Scripture when I realised that it was written by Sebastian Barry. I read A Long, Long Way last year, and along with The Book Thief, these are the two books that have had me audibly sobbing whilst reading.

As with A Long, Long Way, this book is set in Ireland and takes for its main characters people, events and perspectives that are often overlooked.  Indeed, the main character of The Secret Scripture, Roseanne McNulty- or is it Roseanne Clear?- has certainly been overlooked.  She has been incarcerated in an asylum for about sixty years, and it is only at the age of 100, as the asylum is being deinstitutionalized, that questions are again raised about why exactly she came to be placed there, and by whom.   The story is told in alternating voices- Roseanne’s own testimony surreptitiously written on scrap paper and hidden under a floorboard, and that of Dr Grene, her recently-bereaved psychiatrist who has to decide on the appropriate placement for her when the asylum is closed.

Roseanne has truly been a victim of Ireland’s ‘big’ history in her own little life: all the distrust and hatred of religion and politics comes right into her most intimate and precious relationships.  She is a passive victim- perhaps to stop resisting is the ultimate defeat. Tragic things have happened to her,  often not of her own making, and yet there is a simplicity that shines through her. Or is there?  The major theme of this book is history- its evasions, its slipperiness and its unreliability.  And Dr Grene himself, who at first seems to be the anchoring ‘truth’ in the narrative becomes increasingly suspect as a narrator.  You find yourself wondering if either of these narratives- Roseanne’s and Dr Grene’s – can be trusted.

Barry has written about these characters, and their situations before.  Eneas McNulty had already appeared in his The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and was an officer in Thomas Dunne’s policeforce.  Dunne was a main character in Barry’s play The Steward of Christendom, and his son Willie appeared in A Long Long Way, and Willie’s sister appears in Annie Dunne.  So while each book is self contained as a narrative, there are allusions and resonances in Barry’s other work as well.  Of course, Barry is not the only author to construct an interconnected web of characters like this- Tim Winton does it too- and there’s a frisson of recognition when you make the connection.

In this case, Barry takes his characters from his own family tree.  He’s not the only writer to do that either-  Kate Grenville seems to be devoting herself to it  (her new book The Lieutenant pairs up with her earlier The Secret River) , and Peter Behrens (whose Law of Dreams I reviewed earlier)  also based his story on an ancestor.  On one level I can understand the attraction of recovering and making your own family members come alive again through your writing.  I guess that it’s a form of self-reflection, wondering whether certain characteristics have come through to you.  And there’s also the element of identification and indebtedness: that I am who I am because of them.  But all this seems very “me” oriented.  I think about the ‘celebrities’ on the increasing formulaic Who Do You Think You Are? wide-eyed with  wonder at their forebears’ lot and determined to squeeze every possible supposition out of the flimsiest of evidence- and culminating, always always always with trembling chins and tears at the injustice and hardness of other people’s lives. Ah, but they are OUR other people’s lives- hence our empathy and imagination wells up for them, when it has laid dormant for any other of the millions of other people who trod the same paths.

Not just characters- Barry also revisits his earlier work in his narrative voice too. The scene that affected me so much in A Long, Long Way was where the young boy stood up and sang Ave Maria- I don’t have the book here, but it was beautifully written with a sob of pain in each sentence.  Beautiful, beautiful writing.  And then, in The Secret Scripture, I found another lamentation which evoked the keening of his earlier work as well:

…that he hanged himself.  Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh oh, oh, oh, oh.  Do you know the grief of it? I hope not.  The grief that does not age, that does not go away with time, like most griefs and human matters.  That is the grief that is always there, swinging a little in a derelict house…..

But I have a little lamentation of my own- the ending.  Barry has unsettled us throughout the book over issues of truth and secrecy, and yet has tied up all the ends neatly and plonked it on our laps as a finished product.

So I have mixed feelings about the book.  The writing was beautiful; Roseanne was a haunting, tragic character; it is a very sad, sad book.  The ambiguity of truth, invention and forgetting keeps you wary and watchful as a reader.  But oh- the ending- (oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh….).

The Dull Middle-Aged Antipodean and the Bright Young People

Impersonation Party, 1927: Among the revellers are Cecil Beaton (back left), Tallulah Bankhead (front right), Elizabeth Ponsonby (in black hat), and (front row left) Stephen Tennant as Queen Marie of Romania

D. J. Taylor “Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-40”

Sometimes the Resident Judge feels very Antipodean and well, rather ignorant.  When reading this book, for instance.  I’d heard about it on Radio National’s Book Show and, having recently read and enjoyed Victoria Glendinning’s Vita,  and David Cannadine’s Aspects of Aristocracy, I thought I’d enjoy this.  And hey- I gobbled up Mary Lovell’s The Mitford Girls, I swooned over the Brideshead Revisited series years ago (which is on the top of the to-be-read list) and have read a Woolf or two or three in my time.  So, I thought I’d know enough about the Bright Young People to embark upon this book.

Obviously I don’t know as much as I thought I did.  To be honest, I gleaned far more from the reviews and the interview with the author on the Book Show than I did from the book itself.  Perhaps the physical aspects of this particular copy were the first problem.  I could only find it in Large Print format at any of the libraries I frequent, which in itself is interesting- it was in the Outreach Van which goes round to all the aged-care homes where, no doubt, is where Bright Young People are now.  It is available in hard-back, but at $65.00- well…..

I found it rather hard to take a book in Large Print seriously.  I felt Nanna-ish while I was reading it, and infantalized in a way. There were very few pictures in the book, and those that it did have were of very poor quality.  If ever a group of people called out for photographs, the Bright Young People did!  They were the celebrities of the 1920s, floridly material and consumeristic and highly visible. As it happens, I’d just been to see the Art Deco exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, and I rued even more the paucity of photographs of people and material culture in this book.

And so many names! and for me, that’s all they were- names.  I really needed a cast-list at the front of the book with little potted biographies- a sentence or two would do, and a damned good index at the back.  Alas- neither of these were provided, although there was a curious mock gossip column at the start that introduced the names that the reader was about to encounter throughout the book.  But, clever though it was, it lost all effect as it was just as fleeting and cursory as the rest of the book was: an exercise in name-dropping, and I gained far more from it when I returned to it after finishing the book.  Likewise, some chapters had a little vignette attached where one of the Bright Young People was discussed in more detail. But the titles of these vignettes did not always correlate intuitively with the person being discussed, so that you couldn’t locate the vignette in the table of contents and turn to it easily.  They were spaced throughout the text, and you would often encounter a character many, many times before he or she was finally dealt with in a vignette. Without an index you couldn’t go back to re-read the information offered up previously that had, at last, been contextualized and integrated into the vignette.

For me, this was a book deeply flawed by structural elements, and my reading was hampered by lack of background knowledge.  And so, I was rather surprised when reading reviews of the book, that I had actually understood much more than I realised I had during the act of reading.  Yesterday I googled around on some of the main characters that Taylor deals with in this book (e.g. Brian Howard, Eddy Gathorne-Hardy) and realised that nearly all of the names were now familiar to me, thanks to this book.

The Bright Young People knew who they were, and they knew who were the imposters too.  They were the generation that ‘came out’ in the immediate Post World War I era, the younger siblings of the mourned generation of WWI. They congregated around Mayfair, and were well connected either through establishment or artistic ties.  Caught demographically between WWI and the Depression/WWII, they existed in a self-obsessed little bubble in the 1920s, feeding on the wealth of their families or thriving in the media and technology of the time.  Many of their activities were flamboyant and self-indulgent: scavenger hunts through the Establishment buildings of London, weekend country-house parties swilled away in alcohol and drugs, fancy dress and theme parties- and consumption, consumption, consumption. The Wall Street crash seemed to have escaped their interest, but by the 1930s their profligacy in the face of the Depression became unconscionable and they began to respond more to the politics of the day- either Communist and caught up in the Spanish Civil War, or fascist (e.g. Diana Mosely) and strongly supportive of the Blackshirts. Then came World War II and the Bright Young People were bright no more.

There were many resonances with the current cult of personality : Brenda Dean Paul died a heroin addict in a life not unlike Britney Spears’;  and there was the symbiotic love-hate relationship with the media which both employed and execrated the Bright Young People. Many of the young men were homosexual. Drug-taking and alcohol abounded. Parents despaired of the flippancy and extravagance of their infantilized children who didn’t go to bed until 5.00 a.m. and seemed to think that the whole world existed just for their amusement.

The emotional heart of the book probably lies in the material that the author has gleaned from the unpublished diaries of the parents of Elizabeth Ponsonby (pictured above).  Her father was a politician employed on a parliamentary salary which could barely stretch to cover his daughter’s extravagance.  He, and his wife, watched on aghast and yet always loving, as their daughter abused their income, home and support.  Other sources for the book included letters between Bright Young People, newspaper reports and extracts from novels written by Bright Young People about Bright Young People.  There’s always a peril in using novel extracts – especially if they are as ephemeral as some of these novels and novelists were: an extract might resonate if you happen to have read the book, but otherwise it’s a bit like overhearing someone else’s conversation.

So, an unusual reading experience for me.  I found it a frustrating difficult read, and yet I gained far more than I realized I did.

‘The Law of Dreams’ by Peter Behrens

2006, 394 p.

This book was awarded the Canadian Governor-Generals Literary Award for Fiction, and I suspect that much of its appeal lay in the same sentiment that gave such acclaim to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. here in Australia.  Both books are based on a family ancestor, and in both cases there was an emigration to a settler colony.  In both books, much of the story centred on the character actually reaching the new colony rather than what happened once they arrived-  although less so in Grenville’s book.

The Law of Dreams traces Fergus, a young boy orphaned through the Irish potato famine, and made homeless by the eviction of the tenant farmers by the farm overseer.  He is sent to a workhouse, joins a gang of young marauding bandits, leaves for Liverpool, works as a navvy with tip ponies building railways and eventually leaves for America.  The law of dreams is to ‘keep moving’, and this long odyssey is almost dream-like in its telling.  The scenes in the famine are described in a rather detached fashion; people move into the slipstream of the story and then fall away quickly and the impetus is to keep going, keep going.

I suspect that there’s a sort of writerly hazard in choosing to use one of your forebears as the main character in your novel.  Perhaps there’s an inner imperative to remain true to the bare bones of the story- the ‘what REALLY happeneds’- and I think this limits the character development to a certain extent.

Peter Behrens, it seems, is a screenwriter, and I think this shows in the book.  The book is divided into several parts as the setting for the novel switches from place to place, and within each part there are many short chapters of two to three pages.  To me, this reflects very much a screenwriter’s view where the camera-shot and cutaway can do the narrative leg work in shifting time and place.  In a novel, though, I think it’s taking the easy way out to just start another chapter without having to narratively take characters and action from one place to another.

This aside though, the journey was a compelling one and the book is well worth reading.

‘Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change” by Clive Hamilton

2007, 230p.

This book exposes the names and organisations behind the Greenhouse Mafia- the group of Australian energy and resource producers who lobby the government ( in particular the Howard Government, but given the uneasy shuffling of feet I suspect the Rudd government ministers too) to act in a way that privileges their own interests over all.  He gives this shadowy group definite names and identities: the climate change skeptics (William Kininmonth, John Zillman), the industrialists (Hugh Morgan), the lobbyists  (the Lower Emissions Technology Advisory Group) and the press (the Australian, Michael Duffy etc).  For this alone, I’m glad I read this book. Sometimes, when I read the newspaper I feel as if it’s nothing but an arena for lobbyists and PR consultants to buy space for whatever they are pushing; the mantra over “balance” means that undue exposure can be given to minority views, and the anodyne, deceptive and largely interchangeable names given to “groups” and “bodies” with widely varying agendas become almost meaningless.

But he also exposes the duplicity and paradox in the Howard government’s position on Kyoto. He argues that the Howard government, as the ‘cover’ for the Greenhouse Mafia, consciously sabotaged Kyoto because it didn’t want China- a major energy export market- to limit its emissions while at the same time arguing that Kyoto is unworkable and unfair because they are not limiting their emissions.

At times, and as the book progresses, he becomes increasingly shrill, particularly against Murdoch’s Australian , which detracts from his argument.  The book highlights that ordinary Australian’s concern about climate change stretches back deades, and that at the time of writing (2007), this commitment looked as if it were about to be activitated.

But I very much doubt that the Greenhouse Mafia has disappeared.  I fear that the fine-tuning of the response to the Garnaut report in response to “business export fears” is evidence of the Greenhouse Mafia flexing its muscle against the Rudd government as well.

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton


Had this been the only Tim Winton book that I had ever read, I too would be throwing every award that I could at it: last night it was announced that it had won the Age Book of the Year.

Like the swell of ocean waves, you think that it’s building into a surf-story, then all of a sudden you realise that you’re into the full-blown coming-of-age story complete with betrayal, sexual experimentation, parental estrangement, empty dreams and disillusionment. It has it all: beautiful writing that just takes you along with it, a wry narrator whom you almost instantly like, a love for the ocean, and an ease of telling that is sure without being pretentious.  Much like the public persona of Tim Winton himself, it seems.

And I guess that here lies my problem with it.  I’ve read several Tim Winton books, and I feel as if I’m reading the same story again and again.  His evocation of his Western Australian roots, his Christian background, his middle aged male protagonists, his collection of broken, betrayed and disillusioned people…they’re all there in The Riders, Dirt Music, The Turning and now again in Breath.  The sheer exuberance of Cloudstreet- probably my favourite Australian novel- seems a long time ago, and it was. He does Angelus, and his nostalgic male protagonists very, very well.  But I think of other authors- Peter Carey, Margaret Attwood, Joyce Carol Oates- who really stretch themselves and their writing into new shapes and places and I wish that, perhaps, he was a bit braver.