BOOK REVIEW: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan, Vintage)

Narrow Road to the Deep North Book CoverIn Tasmania, a new book by Richard Flanagan is a much-anticipated event. He is, after all, a local hero. But he is much more than that, and with each book published his Australian and international reputation grows. The Narrow Road to the Deep North will continue this trajectory. It is a grand book. The story centres on Dorrigo Evans’ life as a surgeon in a prisoner of war camp on the Burma Railway. Dorrigo is a complex man who, for all his shortcomings, provides leadership and comfort to his men. Flanagan’s depictions of the men who are building the railway are fine portraits of Australians, good and bad; these depictions are cleverly balanced later in the book when Flanagan examines the effects of the war on the prison guards. The difference between the European/Australian and the Oriental/Japanese way of thinking is also used to great effect. At the beginning of the war Dorrigo meets a woman in a bookshop in Adelaide before being sent overseas for service. At the end of the war he marries another woman—the one he was expected to marry. The war leaves Dorrigo deeply unhappy; he behaves badly towards his family, while his reputation as a war hero grows. I truly believe anyone with an interest in Australia will enjoy this book. The trick will be getting it into the hands of nonfiction readers who will benefit from the understanding that only fiction can deliver. There is a particularly apt line in this book: ‘A good book … leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your soul.’ Will we get some national soul-searching from this book? We should.

Clive Tilsley is the owner and director of Fullers Bookshop. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in August 2013. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Asylum (John Harwood, Vintage)

AsylumIn this suspenseful gothic thriller set in late Victorian England, John Harwood (The Ghost Writer, Séance) has clearly had fun with the genre while creating a compelling page-turner with enough plot twists and turns to keep you reading into the night. Finding herself in a strange bed in the infirmary of a lunatic asylum, our narrator, Georgina Ferrars, wakes up, as if from a nightmare. Having lost all memory of the past six weeks, she is told that she had admitted herself as a voluntary patient but this soon changes when she is certified as insane and held against her will. Why is everyone calling her Lucy Ashton and where is her treasured brooch and writing case containing her journals? How did she end up here, why has she forgotten so much and who can she trust to help her solve the puzzle? Skilfully told from the viewpoints of the main female characters via a combination of first-person narrative, a journal and letters, this is a novel about love, greed, madness and memory, and about women and their options—or lack of them. Despite a schlocky, yet fitting, dénouement, I couldn’t tear myself away from this book, and its mysteries.

Paula Grunseit is a freelance journalist, editor and reviewer. This review first appeared in the Issue 2 2013 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Twitcher (Cherise Saywell, Vintage)

TwitcherTwitcher is Cherise Saywell’s second novel after her impressive debut, Desert Fish. Sixteen-year-old Kenno lives with his parents and sister in a popular coastal town in Scotland. Real estate is booming as developers are buying up, subdividing and selling off land packages to tourists and wealthy townsfolk. But for Kenno and his family, life is tough as they struggle to make ends meet following a tragedy many years ago. Kenno works at the local supermarket and helps out at his father’s cleaning business, but when he learns of the family’s imminent eviction from their rental property, he comes up with a plan to help them out. Convinced his fail-safe scheme will not only bring financial security but also heal the rifts in the family, Kenno is soon drawn into a complicated web of half-truths, deception and misunderstandings. Saywell has captured beautifully the nuances of sibling relationships as well as the psychological complexity of adolescence, as Kenno negotiates his morality, loyalty and sexuality. The portrayal of a broken family still trying to function is extremely well done. This is intelligent, powerful fiction about family and the burden of guilt, loss and grief.

Sarina Gale is a freelance writer and bookseller at the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in February. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Daughters of Mars (Tom Keneally, Vintage)

A sprawling saga, The Daughters of Mars is based on journals kept by Australian nursing sisters who laboured in claustrophobic hospital ships, casualty clearing stations and hospitals in Europe during the First World War. Sisters Naomi and Sally Durrance have their own reasons for volunteering, as do many of their newfound nursing friends, but they are tested beyond endurance as they try to save lives and ameliorate suffering in challenging, often hopeless conditions. Yet it is in this unlikely setting that several of these courageous, resourceful women meet the remarkable men with whom they wish to spend the rest of their lives. Tom Keneally is at his powerful best when he is writing about the ships, the tent hospitals and the visionary Australian Voluntary Hospital. His descriptions— the arrival and treatment of hundreds of wounded at a time, of life and death decision-making, of medicine practised under impossible conditions, and of the inexhaustible compassion and drive of the doctors, nurses and orderlies—are moving and compelling. The book reaches another level of horror and suffering with the advent of gas warfare and this reader began to rebel against the detailed description of yet more ways to maim and kill young men. The phrase ‘strong editor’ came to mind. However, Keneally is a ‘heart on sleeve’ writer and the reader is carried along by his mix of humdrum rural life in peacetime, and excitement of what was idealistically seen as a short, sharp war in Europe. The sheer courage and tenacity of those caught up in the increasingly protracted struggle, and the friendships, romances, feuds and tragedies of his all-too-human cast, add layers to this complex, factually based novel.

Max Oliver is a veteran Australian bookseller. This review first appeared in the Bookseller+Publisher website in April 2012. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mountain (Drusilla Modjeska, Vintage)

The mountain, the dominant image of Drusilla Modjeska’s ambitious new novel, is an imaginary peak in Australia’s nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. A young, recently wed Dutch photographer, Rika, and her English ethnologist husband Leonard arrive in PNG at the end of the 1960s, when the Melanesian country is still under Australian colonial rule. He is to study the remote tribal community of the mountain, and she is along for the ride. Finding herself quickly abandoned, however, Rika is drawn to an educated young Papua New Guinean, Aaron, and a lifelong love affair with him and his country begins. With elements of a family saga (the story ends in recent times), The Mountain is book about the enduring relationship between European and Melanesian in all its complexity: the ties that can bring people together and the mysteries that can confound them on both sides. Informed by the author’s many visits to PNG and by much historical research, the book’s strength is its lovingly detailed depictions of Papuan New Guinean life, culture and society. While PNG’s gaining of independence in 1975 is major event in the book, Modjeska’s focus is largely on the personal and emotional lives of her characters, rather than on the political (it is a novel, after all). As a conduit into a fascinating yet frequently misunderstood country on Australia’s doorstep, The Mountain has much to recommend it.

Andrew Wilkins is director of Wilkins Farago. He wrote this review in the Port Moresby hotel featured in this bookThis review first appeared in the Feb/March 2012 issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: The Light between Oceans (M L Stedman, Vintage)

The Light between Oceans is the debut novel from Australian author M L Stedmen (now living in the UK), which sparked a fierce bidding war and has already sold into multiple territories. Tom Sherbourne has survived Word War I, but now faces a terrifying situation of a completely different nature. He and his wife live on an otherwise uninhabited island off the coast of Western Australia, where Tom keeps the lighthouse. Here, he experiences peace from the bloody memories of the Great War that sometimes haunt him, but his wife Isabel miscarries three children, far from medical aid. When a boat carrying a dead man and a baby washes ashore, Isabel is smitten with the little girl, and Tom cannot deny her the baby. But what will it cost them both? This story is fascinating and so beautifully told—I couldn’t put it down. It perfectly evoked Australia, particularly in the descriptions of a lonely island and a small country town. The rhythm of the lighthouse and the family’s days on the island seem at once completely normal and unusually beautiful. The shifts in perspective and the growing cast of characters require the reader pays attention, but it is impossible not to. This is a romantic and a tragic book which grapples with themes such as vengeance and forgiveness, and will have crossover appeal for literary and general fiction readers.

Jessica Broadbent is a qualified librarian who has worked in publishing and bookselling. This review first appeared in the Feb/March 2012 issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

INTERVIEW: Frank Moorhouse on ‘Cold Light’ (Vintage)

In the conclusion to Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’, former League of Nations officer Edith Campbell Berry mixes politics with pleasure in post-war Canberra. Moorhouse spoke to Andrea Hanke in the November issue of Bookseller+Publisher. (See her review here.)

Edith has a glamorous lifestyle in the first two books. She is young, attractive, surrounded by interesting men and women, and working for world peace. Were you tempted to end her story there?
For a while after Dark Palace I thought that Edith’s life ended with the collapse of the League of Nations. She had come through this great disaster in human vision—what some saw as the greatest diplomatic embarrassment of the 20th century—the new UN had rejected her, and some of her friends at the League had suicided because of their failure to stop World War II. In some ways Edith flees back to Australia to find herself. I became excited and went to Jane Palfreyman, my then editor at Random House, and said, ‘the third novel is set in Canberra in the 1950s’. She looked at me and said, ‘do you have a stronger pitch than that?’ I told her that this was a remarkable time in Australia and the world regardless of how we tend to see it—and Edith belonged there. Jane agreed. In Canberra Edith again confronts all the great problems of the human race—and her own personal dilemmas. Wherever we go the existential questions follow us. Edith is a woman in her prime, also a woman still trying to understand her sexuality even if it means crossing the sexual borders or trying to live without borders. She is a woman who wrestles for her say in the world; to find a family life; she wrestles with alcohol, and she strives for a sexual life which fits her personality and she searches for peace of mind.

In Cold Light, Edith takes up a number of causes, including the construction of Canberra, for which she has lofty dreams. How do you think she would feel about Australia’s capital today?
Edith would’ve been pleased to see that the unique and creative hands of Marion and Walter Griffin were still clearly present in the design of the national capital.

She would have seen that the residential neighbourhoods of Canberra had lost their rawness and had become distinctive in design and layout—some with interesting restaurants and their own community activities, and that each is now an archive of the architectural styles of the decade in which they were built.

She would have said now let’s pull down any unsuccessful structures and ugliness.

She would have been disappointed that the buses taking people to and from work did not have visits from wandering minstrels and opera singers and celebrities.

But she would be delighted and thrilled that Australia had manage to create a distinctive city ‘not like any other in the world’ with its ‘temples’ of art, literature, science, music, democracy, law, military history, its parks and gardens, and a national museum—all showing where we came from and what brought us along.

She would probably ask where the Museum of Design, Arts, and Crafts was and why there wasn’t there a great museum of Indigenous culture.

She might be disappointed at the level of political debate in the new parliament house.

You spent some time in Geneva to research the first two books of the trilogy. Did you set up camp in Canberra for this book?
One day in the bus travelling through Canberra in a winter mist I had a dazzling revelation—it was that Canberra may well have evolved into the most aesthetically distinctive and functionally satisfying 20th-century planned city in the world—that Australia had pulled it off. I then had a second realisation, Canberra was now completed in the formal sense—the new parliament house was working and the key cultural institutions were pretty much in place. I even entertained the notion that Canberra might be the most beautiful 20th-century city in the world. While some people who live outside Canberra still hold out-dated memories of the ‘city without soul’ where you couldn’t get a decent coffee, Canberra is now a sophisticated city and it increasingly delights me—architecturally, gastronomically and with its wonderful cultural resources.

The story also delves into the history of the Australian Communist Party, and its role in political espionage during the 1950s (both as a spy and as a party that was heavily spied upon). Did you find many sources to draw on this?
The release of national archival material and the publication of a revealing book by former communist Mark Aarons (The Family File, Black Inc.) may have extinguished any illusions those on the left still have about the nature of the Australian communist party leadership during the immediate post-war years. We now know that the communist party in Australia was substantially funded by the Soviet Union and a section of the membership was engaged in spying for the Soviet Union. Whether this has discredited forever the vision of some sort of a socialistic economic and social system as an alternative to that of American capitalism is, perhaps, still to be resolved.

You write ‘literary novels’ that are funny and sexy, which is less common in this genre. Have you been influenced by any particular authors?
My hero author is George Eliot and she has influenced me throughout my life since school days but I doubt that she has contributed to what you call the ‘sexy’ in my work—I have to take responsibility for that—although, given her own personal life, I do not think she would’ve been in any ways embarrassed by it if she were alive to read it. I think her influence on me was that she showed me that the personal life, the civic life, the life of ideas and social change can be intertwined into an engaging readable novel.

Are there any plans to adapt Edith’s story into a movie or mini-series?
A number of film options have been taken out on the Edith novels over the 20 years that they were written but they still await the right director and producer—Cate Blanchett said in an interview that my character Edith was the one she most wanted to play. I hope that comes to pass.

BOOK REVIEW: Cold Light (Frank Moorhouse, Vintage)

In the final volume of Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’, former League of Nations officer Edith Campbell Berry has fallen on hard times: Canberra in the 1950s. As a married woman—albeit an unconventional marriage to her longtime companion, British diplomat and ‘nancy boy’ Ambrose Westwood—she finds it difficult to break into conservative Australian politics. While life in postwar Canberra may lack the glamour of Geneva in the interwar years (the setting of the first two books Grand Days and Dark Palace), beneath the surface it is far from dull: communism, nuclear weapons proliferation and a town-planning conference are just some of the issues demanding Edith’s attention. In Cold Light, Moorhouse adds further layers to his complex character. Edith is older, she has suffered disappointment and is searching for direction. Happily, however, she still knows how to have fun, and it was wonderful to spend time with the ‘old Edith’ in this book: the witty Edith, who excels in verbal sparring, sometimes in Latin; the sexy Edith, who enjoys under-the-table hanky-panky at a dinner party at the Lodge; and the slightly eccentric Edith, whose first task in landing a public service position is to redecorate her office. This is an intelligent, insightful, funny, sexy and sometimes sad conclusion to a wonderful trilogy.

Andrea Hanke is editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This review first appeared in the November 2011 issue of the magazine, available online here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Street Sweeper (Elliot Perlman, Vintage)

It’s been eight years since Elliot Perlman’s last novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was released. Unlike renowned American literary critic Harold Bloom, I was unimpressed by that book, thinking that it failed, with its tricky structure and rather mundane plot, to capitalise on the great promise shown by Perlman’s first book—the enticing Three Dollars. But Perlman’s latest, The Street Sweeper, restores my faith in his work. It is, I think, a fine novel written by an author comfortable in his capacity to tell stories that seek to inform as well as entertain.

Set in New York City, the book follows two characters in crisis as they try to move through lives riven with events beyond their control. Lamont Williams has been recently released from prison after serving six years for a crime in which he played an incidental, if not unintentional role. He is starting a job as a probationary janitor at a cancer hospital in New York. He wants to get his life back on track: keep his job; find a place to live; try to find his estranged daughter.

Adam Zignelik is an expatriate Australian historian, whose career at the prestigious Columbia University is about to be terminated due to underperformance. This lack of momentum in his life causes him to break up with his long-term partner, Diane, in a misguided attempt to save her, and any potential offspring, from his lacklustre life.

From these beginnings, Perlman’s narrative spins wider and wider, encompassing greater and greater themes with profound moral and social import. In this, I think Perlman is an old-fashioned kind of writer. He seeks to both entertain and to teach, with long passages on the civil rights movement, the law, the Holocaust and (surely a nod to Kevin Rudd) Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In this book, Perlman has also taken a risk. The novel is very much set in New York and follows a great tradition of novels set in and about that city. His knowledge about, not only the city, but the broad sweep of American history may, dare I say, put some native American authors to shame. This is just one of his tricks, however. Stylistically, the novel is intricate and engaging. The narrative constantly cycles through events, times, character traits—building each moment on top of the last, before revisiting it only to expand further outward.

This is a compelling novel, filled with detail, for sure, but very serious in its purpose to make us think about the world a little more fully, a little more deeply. Look out for it in awards lists, both here and overseas.

Shane Strange is an ex-bookseller and writer who teaches writing at the University of Canberra. This review first appeared in the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Fatima Bhutto

Last year we spoke to Fatima Bhutto, author of Songs of Blood and Sword (Vintage), for our ‘on tour’ interview. Bhutto was due to appear at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, but was forced to pull out in the last minute. Happily, she has finally arrived in Australia, this time as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Who is the ideal reader for your book?
Anyone curious about Pakistan. Or the devastating effects of power.

What do you think of the Australian cover?
I’m thrilled—can’t wait to finally come and see the Australian print of the book in person as opposed to tiny email attachments …

What’s the best thing about book tours?
Best thing?

And the worst thing?
You’re away from writing, you have to speak to journalists all day long, there’s no time to read, I could go on …

What are you reading right now?
Before Night Falls
by Reinaldo Arenas (Serpent’s Tail) and The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury).

What book do you wish you could have written?
The History of Love
by Nicole Krauss (Penguin). It’s such a beautiful, tender novel. It’s in my top five.

What book would you want with you on a desert island?
Can I not have a shelf? Something to keep the gloom away by David Sedaris. Fitzgerald for warmth. Alain de Botton to keep my questions alive.

Typewriter or computer?
Computer, no doubt.

Hardback, paperback or digital?
Hardback. Never, ever digital.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I wouldn’t.

If I were a literary character I’d be …
My favourite character of all time is Atticus Finch. I wish I could be him.