The Bone Clocks (2014) – David MITCHELL

I should note, before I start, that I can in no way be a partial judge of David Mitchell’s work. If ever I had a favourite author, this guy would be it. So apologies if this sounds a bit fanboy-ish.

David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, is another genre-bending, time-travelling, sprawling epic from the author of Cloud Atlas. When Holly Sykes runs away from home as a 16 year old, she cannot begin to imagine her life as an adult—a life that will see her travel the world, meet interesting people, and be drawn into a supernatural war thousands of years old.

Mitchell has few peers when it comes to the way in which he mixes and remixes genre and style to create an entirely new entity. So the best comparisons to draw are with his other work. I have seen several reviewers point to Cloud Atlas for comparison, but other than the fact that The Bone Clocks is composed of six interlocking novellas, there isn’t a lot going for that comparison. For while the beauty of Cloud Atlas is that those six novellas are, for the most part, unrelated, The Bone Clocks is a much tighter, much more controlled narrative. Each of the six stories here relates directly to Holly Sykes, whether through her family or through people she comes into contact with as she lives her (comparatively) normal life.

The other huge departure, too, is that The Bone Clocks is, if you’ll forgive the expression, balls-out fantasy. There’s none of the pussy-footing around the idea of reincarnation that we saw in Cloud Atlas, or even in Thousand Autumns—the concepts of Horologists, Atemporal, of people who can read minds, of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cather are right out of a Neil Gaiman or China Mieville novel. And yet it all seems to work, and never feels forced or too much like a literary trying desperately to be cool: it’s not just fancy decoration.

So though the fantasy is omnipresent in the pages of the novel, these complexities and fireworks would be nothing if there was no humanity, no soul (if you’ll forgive my taking of Mitchell’s own parlance) at the centre of it. Once you are drawn into the real lives of the five protagonists, it is easy to forget that any other-worldly creatures exist in this novel ever existed—Hugo, Ed and Crispin are all fascinating portraits of ordinary people learning to live in a world that doesn’t quite make sense to them. Each finds themselves on the outer, each tries to get closer to Holly in order to ground themselves in a world they see slipping out of their grasp at an alarming rate. Perhaps, then, this is a novel of the men in Holly’s lives?

Mitchell has always been deeply concerned with the soul, with exploring the essence of what it means to be human. His work finds this soul, this humanity, in people from all over the world and from all over time. He doesn’t seem to see any particularly inherent difference between, say, a Noongar elder from the dawns of time and a Japanese prostitute working in 1600s Dejima. That kind of beautifully humanist naivety is what has always drawn me to his work, and The Bone Clocks is no exception.

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Sworn Virgin (2007) – Elvira DONES

To say that we have a woman problem is unfair, but it something that we should all keep in mind, particularly with the recent conclusion of Women in Translation month: women seem to be disproportionately under-represented when we talk about translated fiction. I’m not totally sure why, but while And Other Stories can be commended for many things when it comes to translated fiction, to this point (four years in), they have only published one lady writer in translation. Odd.

Fortunately, the one novel they have published in this category is a good one.

It’s 2001, and Hana Doda has arrived in America to live with her cousin Lila. But Hana isn’t just dealing with entering a new culture—for the past 14 years, she has lived as Mark, a man in the Albanian mountains. Here in America, though, she will reclaim her former life as Hana, a young woman with hopes and dreams that have been suppressed for more than a decade.

Rather sensibly, Dones does not linger too long on either the way in which Hana becomes Mark, nor even the life Mark leads. She is not concerned with the titillation of a cross-dressing character—she is concerned with the emotions and thoughts of a real person who has made an immense sacrifice to ensure her own safety and survival.

What emerges from this novel is not just the truistic fact that gender is a social construct, but that navigating between the two is supremely difficult. Mark was never anything more than a construction Hana used to get out of a tricky situation, but he was a mask that she wore for 15 years, and one that she became used to. I’m not sure she was ever comfortable behind the mask (very few people ever are; and the only time we are given a glimpse into this life, the situation does not end well), but she learned what the mask entailed.

When Hana comes to America to make a new life for herself, ready to free herself from the cocoon of male identity she has spun, she finds herself stepping into a whole new world. Not America—Hana is too smart to let a small thing like culture shock get in the way, and she takes to the American daily routine like a duck to water—but to the world of female. Her guide, though, does not seem to realise just how big a transition this really is. For Lila, being a woman means conforming to a certain list of rules, regulating what must be done, what must be worn, and what actions must be taken. For Lila, there are two teams: Team Man and Team Woman, and never the twain shall meet.

It would be tempting, I imagine, for an author like Elvira Dones to ride on the coattails of her inherent otherness (an Albanian writing in Italian), but to her credit, she does not. She takes a tiny piece of Albanian culture—the idea of the burrnesha, or sworn virgin—and weaves around it the inherently human tale of the universal search for identity. If one were the kind of person to exaggerate wildly from a sample size of one, one might say: if this is what women in translation can offer, let’s get moving to find the rest of them.

 

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The Other Shore (2014) – Hoa PHAM

Seizure are a publishing company based in Western Sydney—think of them as the cooler, younger sister of Giramondo. Over the past few years they have run a competition called Viva La Novella, designed to promote writers using this shorter format. This year, there were four winners, each published in print form. Hoa Pham, a former SMH Young Novelist of the Year, was one of this year’s winners.

When Kim Nguyen falls out of a boat and nearly drowns, she suddenly finds herself with the ability to speak to the dead. News of her gift, though, quickly finds its way to the all-knowing government, who want her to use it to help them. But Kim is uncomfortable with her new work, and with the arrival of a mysterious young man from America, she finds her loyalties divided.

Here’s a fun fact: the name Nguyen is the 13th most common surname in Australia. In Sydney, it’s the third most common. Australia has a strong history of immigration from Vietnam—South Australia’s Governor-elect is Hieu Van Le, a man who came to Australia in 1977 as a refugee. And yet, there is a dearth of Vietnamese-Australian voices in the literature world. Anh Do’s autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, was popular, but outside that, there are no household names. It’s refreshing, then, to read a Vietnamese-Australian voice in print.

Kim’s gift awakens her not only to the spiritual world, but to the realities of history that have been hidden from her by an authoritarian government trying to keep a lid on the past. Born and raised in Hà Nội, the stronghold of the communist government, Kim has only been told one side of the story. As she visits past battlefields, however, to help spirits reconnect with their living descendants, she finds herself talking to Americans and Southern Vietnamese people who died during the war.

The use of speculative fiction to shine a light on real-world issues is not exactly revolutionary—in fact, it is the genre’s very raison d’etre—but by placing it in this context, Pham reminds us that the effects of war live long into the future. The Vietnam War holds a particularly complex place in Western memory, and it is pleasing to see that Pham draws out the complexities of the American War from the other side. The battle may be over, but the reverberations of one death travel along family lines, forcing their way into everyday life.

More important, though, is the question it raises about the relationship between children, education and history. Kim is suddenly awakened to the reality of history—that war is complex, and that there are not usually any clear winners. Pham dares to ask the question: what happens to a young girl on the brink of adulthood when she discovers that her life is built on a lie? And here, we don’t mean a small lie, we mean a big, sociocultural lie. Literally her entire life is built on the idea that the North won, and that the Americans and the South were inherently bad people. But this is clearly not the case. Kim’s struggle to reconcile this truth with her life before her gift is deftly explored by Pham, particularly in the second half.

If Viva La Novella is a prize dedicated to finding Australian fiction that wouldn’t be published by a mainstream publisher, then it’s hit the nail on the head with The Other Shore. A genre-bending short work, it highlights Hoa Pham’s abilities to combine the everyday with the supernatural in a way that never feels forced; instead forcing her readers to reconsider their own ideas about war and memory.

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Nowhere People (2011) – Paulo SCOTT

The And Other Stories machine often seems unstoppable. Like Marvel Studios, they have reached a point where their brand seems to almost guarantees success. It would be easy, then, for them to rest on their laurels and start pumping stuff out. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

On a highway in Brazil, a chance encounter will change the lives of a family forever. Feelign guilty about his lack of empathy, Paulo stops at the roadside to help a young Guarani girl, Maína. Quite by accident, he falls in love with her, and their brief but passionate relationship results in a baby. But Donato is soon separated from his parents, and moves to the city, where he is brought up by adoptive parents that can do nothing but their best.

I am, by no means, an expert on Brazilian literature (I am, in fact, struggling to name another Brazilian author I’ve read), but it seems hard not to read Nowhere People as a state-of-the-nation novel. In what is a comparatively slim volume, Scott tackles the big three—race, class and gender—in contemporary, and examines the ways in which the three issues collide.

The most important of those three, though, is race. Scott seems deeply concerned with the indigenous population of Brazil, and in particular, the ways in which the indigenous and non-indigenous populations interact. As with all postcolonial literature concerned with exploring identity, Scott’s main character, Donato, is a hybrid figure—neither completely indigenous, though seemingly unable to commit to a life in mainstream Brazilian life. His interrupted childhood has left him a confused young man, trying to understand his own place, as well as the history of his people.

Donato can only find a sense of relief in his performance art, which sees him stand outside buildings in downtown reclaim and reappropriate a traditional Guarani costume to silently protest the treatment of his people. It’s a stark contrast to his own thoughts as a child which, under the influence, of his white adopted father, saw him ashamed of his Indian heritage, believing the only way forward was assimilation.

This about-turn in values is perhaps symptomatic of a larger question facing the indigenous population in Brazil—and, indeed, all over the world. What is the best way forward for these marginalised groups? Do we ask them to integrate into the mainstream colonial culture, helping them understand our values and money? Do we leave them to their own devices (in Brazil, this has manifested itself in the Terras Indígenas)? And how do people who have been dragged from one side of this debate to the other reconcile their two halves?

Nowhere People is a novel that, the moment you put it down, demands to be reread. Its unfocused narrative shifts are disconcerting, leaving the unsuspecting reader alienated and confused. Once it settles down, however, it is a novel that has a lot to say about a country that is on the brink of becoming one of the world’s powerhouse economies. In an attempt to remind people of the cost of this great leap forward, Scott draws our attention to the nowhere people of Brazil—the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, forced to eke out a living on the side of a highway.

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Here Come the Dogs (2014) – Omar MUSA

I wrote the other week about the lack of diversity of voices in Australian literature, and singled out Giramondo Press for publishing The Tribe, a novel about Muslim Australians. I must eat my words here, and congratulate Penguin Australia for punting on Here Come the Dogs. Not only is this about non-white Australia, about a third of it is in verse.

Omar Musa is a celebrated slam poet and rapper, though his work has always tended more towards the literary and less towards mainstream hip hop. It is great, then, to see him turn to the novel—an art form perhaps intrinsically linked to the dead white man—and reappropriate it, tearing down some of the conventions we have come to expect, and instead force it to conform to his ideas.

Solomon, Aleks and Jimmy don’t fit in. A wake of ruined dreams lies behind them, and they now find themselves in their late twenties with little direction in life. Solomon once dreamt of being a basketball player. Aleks finds himself with a family that is less than perfect. And Jimmy doesn’t know who he is. Instead, they hang around the Town, arguing about hip hop and girls.

Some novels have titles that are natural, while others feel forced. There are others, still, that only make sense once you are in the thick of the action. For quite some time, the only dog in Here Come the Dogs is Mercury, a racing greyhound taken in by Solomon, who feels sorry for the animal. This is an animal that has been used and abused, simply for the entertainment of other people.

Though Here Come the Dogs is not explicitly set in Queanbeyan/Canberra, Musa’s background comes to the fore as he tries to explain what life is like in the Town and in the City. Anyone who has lived in Canberra or Queanbeyan, I suspect, will easily see these two cities in the novel: the City is where the public servants live in their bubble of hipster coffee, wide roads and public art, while the Town is the dirty cousin that everyone tries to ignore. Solomon, Aleks and Jimmy are the dogs of Australia, the ones that have been abandoned by everyone, left to fend for themselves once the shine wears off.

The Town is where Musa’s Australia lives: the Australia that is not all white, the Australia that is a little bit dangerous, the Australia that is forgotten by the political machine until it suits them. There are some very contemporary references here, including the recent moves against Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and it is clear that there is no love lost for politicians like Damien Crawford, a rather terrible (though depressingly accurate) caricature of much of contemporary Australian political discourse. And while this is a novel deeply concerned with the local, if one were so inclined, much of this could be expanded to the national without much stress.

In between the hip hop and the basketball, Here Come the Dogs is probably the closest we’ve come to a state of the nation novel from a young Australian writer in a long time. Though not as obviously angry as early Christos Tsiolkas, Musa is also trying to force the marginalised into the mainstream—an admirable project that hopefully gains traction. Here Comes the Dogs is a muscular portrait of an Australia that cries out for wider recognition.

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Silence Once Begun (2014) – Jesse BALL

I think we all know that I’m a sucker for any book about Japan/set in Japan/written by Japan. And since early reviews for Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun were positive, I thought I’d check it out for myself.

Jesse Ball, an investigative journalist, has come to Japan to solve a mystery. He has heard a story, and he wants to solve it. In the 70s, a man named Oda Sotatsu turned himself into the police, confessing to a crime. What is interesting, though, is that he only did this because he lost a card game. And once he confessed, he remained silent until he was executed. As Ball trawls through the evidence presented to him 40 years later, he finds himself trapped in a web of deceit and lies.

Silence Once Begun is dedicated to K. Abe and S. Endo, and it’s easy to see why. Both Abe and Endo are major Japanese writers, dealing with themes of existential isolation in a post-war Japan, and though that’s not quite what’s going on here, you can delineate the through-line that led Ball to this place. Particularly in the first half, there is a vague sense of unease and oppression—even though the events of the crime took place almost thirty years earlier, none of the affected parties are willing to talk to Ball about it, and when they do, they all seem to contradict each other. Nowhere more has the spawn of the marriage of crime fiction and postmodernism—the unreliable narrator—been more present. And yet, when the key player in the events surrounding the Narito Disappearances himself is dead, perhaps that is all that can be done.

When I read The Cuckoo’s Calling earlier this year, I was struck by how formulaic the formal structure—Strike goes to each person, interviews them, takes notes, and thinks. Perhaps this is simply a result of the genre, but while Rowling seems constrained by this, Ball gets around it by actively drawing our attention to the (un)natural structure of his piece—though this is a novel, it is masquerading as a piece of true crime, so it would make sense for it to look like this.

There’s a weird tension in this novel that I am still trying to wrap my head around. So often in Silence Once Begun, the setting seems irrelevant to the story—despite the general Abe-esque tone of the novel, the fact that this is the story of an American journalist coming to find a story in Japan is rarely touched. Which is a shame, because the novel is set in Sakai, a dirty part of Osaka that is beautiful in its ugliness (I’m allowed to say that—I used to live there). This is particularly apt, since much of the action takes place in the 70s, a time when Japan was still moving fast towards becoming the modern behemoth it is today; and like all developing countries, it was leaving lots of people behind, a fact that opens up narrative possibilities like no other.

And yet, so much of the final act twist revolves around some very particular specificities of the Japanese legal system, including the fact that confessions carry an almost disproportionate weight in trials. It’s like Ball wants us, for long tracts, to ignore the fact that this is a white man telling a story of Asian people—until the very end. I’m struggling to think of another novel that ignores its unusual setting with such abandon for so long, only to make it important for the dénouement.

Silence Once Begun is a short, arresting read. Reading certain passages, you could easily believe this is a lost Abe novel, trying to come to terms with an increasingly isolated world in which we live, where each person’s lived experiences are seen to be as valid as every other’s.

(Unrelated to anything—the cover for this novel only reminds me that any novel about Japan is allowed to have no colours on its cover other than white, red and black.)

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Happy Valley (1939) – Patrick WHITE

I’m a little late to the party, but two years ago, Text Publishing managed to wrestle the publishing rights for Patrick White’s first novel, Happy Valley, out of his cold dead hands. For the first time in many decades, all of his oeuvre is in print. But so much secondary work has sprung up around White since then—what does rereading his first novel achieve that reading his later, more famous work, doesn’t?

Happy Valley is a small town nestled in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. There, people go about their daily lives, like millions of others around the world. Like those others, they have hopes and dreams that will take them far away from the tight-knit community that stifles them. But life is not always pleasant for dreamers, and the realities of the harsh life of country living

The opening sequence of the novel—a beautiful piece in which a bird flies over the town—sets the tone for the rest of the novel—as the eagle soars above Happy Valley catching glimpses of its inhabitants, so too do we as readers get taken on a tour of the lives of these people trying to survive. There is a fine line to balance when writing novels constructed around various threads: too similar, and they all blur; too disparate, and the work feels disjointed and unstable. White manages to keep his threads mostly under control, as the camera swings around the town to focus, one at a time, on his cast of characters.

Though there is no one character that stands as a perfect surrogate for White himself, it is clear this his own frustrations with a small-town mentality manifest themselves in the hopes and dreams of almost every character. Each is trapped in their own responsibilities, unable to find any way to escape their own special prison. This feeling of oppression is helped by ensuring the action takes place in the two most oppressive seasons: winter and summer. The Australian summer’s heat is well-documented in art, but the cold and isolation of a winter in the Southern Highlands is perhaps less well known.

It is all too easy to see what you want to see in Happy Valley, particularly if you are aware of the legacy that would eventually make Patrick White famous: the ability to evoke Australia’s landscape (that would set the course for almost all modern Australian literature); the desire to explore what it means to be an outsider in Australian society; as well as a playfulness in structure, which allows him to both confuse and amaze the reader in equal measure. It is also perhaps the least complex White I have read, making it a perfect jumping-on point for anyone wanting to discover one of Australia’s greatest authors.

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The Son (2014) – Philipp MEYER

Better people than me have tackled this book in better pieces, and there is no way I can get through the complexity of this novel in 500 words. As such, I’ve chosen to pull out a few themes that resonated with me, and go from there.

About halfway through The Son, Peter’s Mexican mistress, María, turns to him and says: “You think that talking about this will allow me to forgive you. Telling you changes nothing.” I wonder if Meyer believes this, because this book does an excellent job of talking about it—where it is the history of Texas. Just as The Secret River eviscerated Australian history for all of us here, The Son lays bare the sins of the history of Texas for all to see. Meyer doesn’t do it to seek forgiveness, but to remind us of the sins upon which Texas is built.

Each of the main characters—Eli, Peter and Jeannie—are alive in a time of great change. Eli is alive to see the near-genocide of the Native American tribes that, for so long, managed and controlled the lands; Peter, to see the lengths white Americans will go to in order to maintain their control; and Jeannie, to see the complete modernisation of the Texan economy, from farming to oil.

This is a novel about white privilege, and how that creates power imbalances. Though the three main characters are each, in their own way, outsiders—Eli was brought up by the Comanche; Peter is a pacifist with liberal tendencies; and Jeannie is a woman—again and again, we are reminded that, in the face of true discrimination, this is irrelevant. They are allowed to be in these positions because they are part of a rich, white family. They are part of the movement that obliterated the Native American population first, and then drove out the Mexicans. And I don’t think Meyer sees this changing any time soon—the sting in the tail of this novel is the few chapters from a fourth point-of-view character that reminds us all that Texas, and America, have a long way to go in dismantling that privilege.

That does not mean that Meyer portrays the Native American tribes and Mexicans that populate this book as angelic figures, as victims unable to stop the onslaught of the big scary white men. The Comanche, in particular, are given ample page time to breathe, and as Eli becomes one of their own, it becomes clear that there are, in fact, very few differences between them and the Europeans seeking to destroy them. Both groups commit heinous crimes to ensure their enemies remain subdued, and both have complex honour codes that require men to be men.

In the end, this is a novel about power. It shows us how power beguiles those who crave it, and reminds us how, in the process of taking it, power dehumanises us all. The McCullough family might have ended up one of the richest and most powerful families in all the land, but these stories show that, just under the surface, they have had to sell their souls to get there. None of the three main characters are close to their spouse or children—in the pursuit of power, they have had to sacrifice those closest to them.

Philipp Meyer’s ability to deftly balance the ostensible positives of modernisation with the atrocities committed in order to ensure its progress is a sight to behold. The Son marks him out as one of the most interesting and gifted chroniclers of modern American history.

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The Tribe (2014) – Michael Mohammed AHMAD

More than 25% of the Australian population were born overseas, and many more have at least one parent born overseas. And yet, despite this huge number, so often Australian literature can seem insular and parochial, concerned with mythologising past glories instead of forging a path into the future. It is heartening to see, then, that Giramondo Press, run out of the University of Western Sydney, is dedicated to publishing these stories. Their Giramondo Shorts, of which The Tribe is a part, are the perfect breeding ground for up-and-coming authors from Western Sydney, the heart of immigrant Australia.

The vibrant messiness of an extended family that is so huge it forms its own community is perhaps the strongest feature of this tiny novel. In 150 pages, we meet a huge cast of characters—some important, some backgrounded—but each one is a member of Bani’s family, and therefore, a member of the Tribe. And just like any family, there are the strong ones, there are the weak ones, there are the ones that are pariahed when they make a mistake, and there are ones that hold the family together through tragedy. I don’t know how much value there is in trying to discover how much of this is based on Ahmad’s own experiences, because the argument would take away from the vividness and evocativeness in his writing here. From the first sentence, the reader is completely immersed in this world, and there is never any question that any of this could not be completely real. From the to the, there is a truth to this tale that other writers would kill to achieve, and this is achieved first and foremost through this cast.

There is distinct distance between Bani and the rest of his community. Though he is clearly aware of other cultures and communities around him (particularly the difference between his own family’s band of Islam and that of the other, larger, sects), he does not pine to be different or to escape. Nevertheless, he does find cause to worry in, say, the treatment of women at the hands of some men in the family. Bani seems more self-aware than many other characters, but it is important to remember the first sentence of the novel: “I was only seven when this happened but it always feels like right now”. This novel is Bani attempting to reconcile the raw emotions of childhood with the more self-reflective intellect of an adult looking back at his own community and upbringing.

Perhaps, though, this is not a reflection of unreliable narration, but simply that, as a seven year old, it is almost impossible to understand the history and linage to which one is inextricably linked through the simple act of being born. Culture is only important when we make it so, and for someone who has not yet been taught the ins and outs of what it means to belong to the Tribe, the intricacies of the culture are a mystery, just as they are to us who view it from the outside. Though I wouldn’t argue changing this almost perfect novella in any way, it would be fascinating to revisit Bani ten years down the track, when he is more self-aware, and more mindful of who he is and what his background makes him.

The Tribe marks the arrival of something different on the Australian literary landscape. There are few other authors marking out the immigrant experience in Australia (early Tsiolkas springs to mind, as does de Kretser’s recent Questions of Travel), but Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s lyrical approach to an immigrant community living in harmony with its surroundings is something that needs to be more prominent.

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The Blue Room (1999) – Hanne ØRSTAVIK

The Peirene machine continues, and this time, they’ve chosen a young Norwegian novelist, Hanne Ørstavik. The back flap says that one of her works was voted one of the best Norwegian novels of the past 25 years. The Blue Room isn’t that work, but if Peirene chose to have it translated, I guess it must be good.

Johanne lives a simple life. She studies psychology at university, goes to church every Sunday, and lives with her mother in a house in Oslo. Into this idyllic life, though, comes a boy. And when her mother finds out about Ivar, Johanne’s life will be changed forever. This is a novel about female sexuality, and about what happens when said sexuality blossoms in a young woman not used to being seen as anything other than innocent and pure.

The inherent tension in Johanne’s views on sex and sexuality are gently teased out by Ørstavik. On the one hand, she has spent her life raised as a good Christian, along with her mother and good friend Karin. This upbringing has ensured she has become this good student, unconcerned with boys and other such distractions. She is more concerned with matters of the mind—she studies psychology to better understand those around her.

On the other hand, though, is perhaps a more instinctive sense. She wants desperately to sleep with Ivar, and every now and then, Johanne’s self-control will fall away and she has flashes of a sex life she didn’t think she would ever want. But now that, finally, there is an outlet for them, she finds herself drawn to the act of sex,

As is so often the case with young relationships, boundaries between physical lust and emotional longing are blurred, and when Ivar suggests she comes with him to America for six weeks, she cautiously accepts. Perhaps it is not the most sensible life choice (at this stage, she and Ivar have only been seeing each other for a few weeks), but she is young, and the whole point of youth is to make mistakes. The relationship may not have lasted, but Johanne is never given the chance to find out.

Having recently read Eimear McBride’s excellent debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, ideas around the construction and representation of the sexuality of young women were still floating around my head when I got around to reading The Blue Room. By the end, I knew I wanted to see McBride and Ørstavik in the same room (the colour is unimportant).

While McBride celebrates the sexual awakening of her unnamed narrator, she is also acutely aware of the friction this can cause in a fairly conservative, religious society. Ørstavik is perhaps less celebratory in her tone, but she is also acutely aware of the reactions of those around her when young women discover a part of life that is often frowned upon.

Both novels, too, deal with the reactions of mothers to their daughter’s changes. Though McBride’s mother is full of fire and brimstone, in many ways, Ørstavik’s is the more terrifying. Discontent with her daughter’s choice, she simply locks her in a room for 24 hours, preventing her from leaving. It’s psychological warfare on a grand scale, and the final scene is a killer. It seems that Ørstavik wants her protagonist to have a life where she is able to enjoy every part of herself, but she can’t find a way in a culture that is deeply conservative.

It takes some time for The Blue Room to warm up, but once it does, it becomes rapidly clear that Hanne Ørstavik is a novelist not content to bang her readers over the head with metaphors and imagery. This novel is subtle, and deceptively simple, but it is also an excellent interrogation of female sexuality, and the societal constraints placed on the women who dare to escape.

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