BOOK REVIEW: The Bath Fugues (Brian Castro, Giramondo)

Brian Castro’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel The Bath Fugues (Giramondo) was reviewed back in the May/June 2009 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine by Max Oliver, a veteran Australian bookseller. Here’s what he had to say:

An extraordinary work, The Bath Fugues consists of three interwoven novellas, of which the third masterfully pulls together all the strands and themes of the preceding two. Each story centres on one person, with a large cast of real and imagined secondary characters. In the first, Jason Redvers, a one-time artist and counterfeiter, is dying, convinced that his wealthy Sydney patron, Walter Gottlieb, has appropriated his past. Redvers’ revenge, his ploy to set the record straight, involves writing an expose of the secret lives and proclivities of his friends and colleagues. The second novella focusses on the Portuguese judge and poet Camilo ConcieÇão, self-exiled to Macau in the 1920s—revelling in his mistresses, his bargain-hunting for Chinese art, his exotic persona and his opium pipes. The final tale is that of Dr Judith Sarraute, a well-connected Australian doctor, privy to the most private thoughts and passions of her patients, custodian of a cabinet of exotic venoms, and eventual owner of an art gallery into which she is persuaded by a well-connected acquaintance. Within the three tales many other characters emerge, reappearing from story to story in the fugal structure that Brian Castro has chosen to give form to his substance. And substance there certainly is. This novel requires intense concentration and I confess to letting some of the many references slide by in order to let the story flow. (A second reading is, I suggest, essential to fully appreciate the skill and breadth of the work). Historical characters—JS Bach, Michel de Montaigne with his crippling kidney stones, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Nathalie Sarraute, Francis Bacon—cohabit with the imagined Australian cubist painter Julia Grace and her lover Ånna AngstrÖm. Motifs recur—addiction, art, forgery, baths, suicide, bicycles—as do witty stylistic references to other writers, for example T S Eliot. Castro introduces the reader to characters without spelling out their relationships to others. Quite suddenly, often much later, he will supply the missing piece of information and another link between his cast of characters is revealed. As long as we are prepared to hold many names, personas and events in our heads, this is an entertaining and rewarding device. The book may require too much work for some; however, for readers who relish complex, clever, character-driven novels with exquisite use of language and almost too much going on, The Bath Fugues will give many hours of pleasure.

This review originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. You can read the March 2010 issue online here.

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