Tag Archives: America

The Yellow Birds (2012) – Kevin POWERS

Releasing your war novel on 11 September is a risky business. If it’s really good, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the important message your novel has; if it’s really bad, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the cheap way people cash in on days like this to play on the public’s emotions. Fortunately, The Yellow Birds ticks so many boxes on my “good novel” list – less than 250 pages, fragmented narrative, gorgeous language, depressing content. It’s like this was written just for me.

Bartle and Murph were deployed to Iraq. But Murph never came back. Haunted by the promise he made to Murph’s mother before they left, Bartle cannot stop thinking about the friend left behind in a foreign land. As we flit between past, present and future, and the story of what really happened to Murph becomes clear, a devastating tale of men under pressure emerges. No one will ever be the same again.

The biography at the back on the book mentions two things that I can only imagine are the most influential parts of Powers’ life on this novel – his time in Iraq as a machine gunner, and his MFA in poetry.Obviously it’s not hard to see the influence the first had on this novel, but the main achievement of this novel, for me, though, is the language. The first paragraph is a beautifully haunting personification of the war itself, describing it as hungry. I could block-quote almost every paragraph in this novel, it is so gorgeously written. But what makes it even more amazing is one passage, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, in which the mask slips. I can’t decide if it’s the mask of the narrator, or of Powers himself, but the perfectly controlled, structured language of the rest of the novel falls away, and for a one-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph, expletives and dirty language, the likes of which have been, up until now, not used, are utilised to brutally attack the war machine. It’s a section that proves to me two things – one, Powers has clearly spent a lot of time crafting a poetic style, which is highly effective; and two, this is a story that is close to his heart.

There are three narratives running in parallel: the first, in 2004, while Bartle and Murph are in Iraq; the second, in 2003, while the two are still in training in America; and the third, in 2005, when John has returned to America after finishing his deployment. Each one shines light on a different stage of the cycle of a soldier’s life. We start with Bartle and Murph patrolling This changes as the two are shipped off to Al Tafar, Iraq (Powers was stationed in Tal Afar). In a foreign, hostile land the two are forced to become closer, relying on on another, as well as the rest of their platoon, to simply stay alive. It’s hard to decide whether or not these soldiers are nice people. Most of them are just people, with flaws just like the rest of us.

It’s not just the people Powers describes with vivid detail. The milieu of the Iraq war – the desolation of a desert landscape – the heat, the wind, the sand – as well as the relationship between the occupying forces and everyday Iraqis, are clearly drawn from personal experience. The first major character death is that of the Iraqi interpreter travelling with the platoon. This is not a surprise – we hear of Iraqis working with Americans being killed far too regularly. But Bartle and Murph are more concerned with being killed themselves – the death toll is rapidly reaching 1000, and they don’t want to be the 1000th American troop killed in Iraq. It becomes a powerful recurring motif throughout the novel, of the death count rising, catching up with soldiers still on the ground.

When Bartle returns to America, he moves back home to live with his mother. As with all returning soldier stories, he has trouble readjusting to a life of relative comfort. He becomes isolated and introverted, moving from his childhood bedroom to a shed in his backyard. This doesn’t last long, however, and he eventually moves out of home, opting to live in an abandoned factory just out of town. In what is probably the most horrific scene – and there are certainly no shortage of candidates here – Bartle finds himself awoken next to a river bed, having been dragged out of the river. It is never made explicit if he jumped or simply slipped, but the reaction of the police who save him is terrifying. Though they suspect a suicide attempt, once they discover Bartle is a former soldier, they just leave him alone. They don’t bother to give him a psych evaluation, because he is a solder, not in spite of it. It’s a damning indictment of how soldiers are treated when they return to modern America.

There is a sting in the tail. It is not until the final pages that we discover what it is that has killed Daniel Murphy. It is not a regular shoot-out, it is not friendly fire, and it is not an IED. Murph goes AWOL, forcing the rest of the platoon to search for him for several days. In the pre-deployment sequences, Murph seemed to be a little nervous, a little unsure, about the whole adventure, and the stresses of war have clearly affected him more than most. While their sergeant coped with it by being a dick, and Bartle seems to be able to bottle it up inside, something inside Murph snaps, and he runs away. Of course, Iraq is still a dangerous place, and so he ends up dead. It’s not a pretty sight, and really hammers home the message Powers is imparting here – war is hell.

From what I can only describe as one of the most arresting first lines I’ve read in ages (“The war tried to kill us in the spring”), to a final, surprisingly redemptive scene, The Yellow Birds marks Kevin Powers as a talent to watch. The collision of perfectly formed, poetic sentences with an horrific subject matter – and making this work – is a sure sign that Powers is a gifted writer. Let’s hope whatever he does next doesn’t disappoint.

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The Buddha in the Attic (2011) – Julie OTSUKA

The first chapter of The Buddha in the Attic was printed in Granta 114 (a seriously excellent collection, by the way), and the second in Granta 115. At the time, I thought they were simply self contained short stories – beautiful short stories. When I discovered soon after that these were from a longer work, I was excited to read it. For some bizarre reason, it’s taken a while to hit Australian bookstores, but once it did, I read it almost in one afternoon.

Picture brides were Japanese women who went to America on the back of a promise. The promise of a better life, with a strapping young Japanese man to take care of them. A promise that is quickly broken. These women find themselves in a foreign land with men they don’t recognise, and with a culture that remains baffling. As the years go by, and they have families, the spectre of war looms ever closer, and their relationships are forced to undergo rapid changes. This is their story.

I think it’s fair to say that the first-person plural voice is not commonly used in contemporary English literature. It takes an author of great skill – and courage – to tackle a voice that is not first-person singular or third-person omniscient, and fortunately, Otsuka is both of these things. Her almost chorus like sentence and paragraph structures give the impression of no one individual story in this epic saga being any more important than another. These women, who have all been forced to start a journey from the same place, are, in many ways, given a stronger platform in their combined tale. With repetitive sentence fragments, a story begins to build – a story that highlights just as many differences as it does similarities. We hear stories of women who are willing to do anything to escape their lives in Japan. We hear stories of women who have been forced by their family into a marriage they don’t want. We hear stories of women who love their new husbands, and ones who run away at the first sight of danger. We hear stories of women having children, of their pain at not being able to get to a doctor in time, of their joy at finding an ally against their husband.

One of the running themes in all of these tales, though, is the us/them dichotomy that is felt by so many of these women. Us Japanese against them Americans. Most of these women don’t learn English – for a variety of reasons – and this simple fact, perhaps more than anything else, cuts them off from the rest of American society. They live in Japantown, surrounded by other Japanese speakers, or they live on farms, where they only have their husbands and their children for company. When they work as maids in the houses of rich white families, it is felt most sharply. There is a beautiful moment when one of the brides finds solace in an old Italian woman – neither can speak English – but there is no need. They are both strangers in this land, doomed never to find peace and quiet.

As with all immigrant stories, the second generation – those children born of immigrants in the new country – find themselves stuck between their family and their desire to fit in. While many of these women originally found their children allies in the world, their relationships quickly fracture as the children learn English, forget Japanese and are embarrassed by their parents. It’s a tale that’s been told many times before, though it takes on a new poignancy here in the hands of Otsuka, who draws out the mix of  shame, sadness and happiness these women feel for their children.

And then there is the last chapter. Otsuka shifts perspective, from the us to the them. The Americans have a chance to tell their side of the story, at least for a little while. The reaction of everyday Americans to the brutal removal of Japanese immigrants from their suburbs and neighbourhoods. Many of them are, at first, deeply saddened by this. Though many of them seem blissfully unaware of what has actually happened to these mysterious people that once populated their streets and corner shops, there is a vague sense of unease about the whole thing. As the war shifts gear, though, and the Japanese Empire becomes a more clear enemy, many people forget these feelings of sadness, and are replaced with a nationalism aimed at exclusion. They forget how much they actually liked the Japanese, and

Small, concise and perfectly-formed, there is nothing missing from this novel. No superfluous material, no word out of place – it is meticulous. And I don’t mean that as an insult. It is clear Otsuka cares deeply about both her subject matter and her language, which makes this a pleasure to read if you have a spare afternoon.

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The Tiger’s Wife (2011) – Téa OBRECHT

I need to start this review with a confession: I didn’t want to like The Tiger’s Wife. We have sold a huge number of copies of this book since it first came out, and eventually won the Orange Prize last year. Téa Obrecht is young, successful, attractive – I didn’t think I could bear it if she were actually talented as well. Sadly for me – fortunately for her – she is immensely talented, and this debut novel shows a writer of great promise.

A young doctor and her friend are travelling across the Balkans, treating people, where an uneasy peace has recently fallen. When Natalia receives word that her grandfather, a prominent doctor at the university has died, it triggers a search for his body, as well as memories of her time as a child, when her grandfather would take her to the city zoo, and tell her about the life and times of the tiger’s wife – a woman in his country village hometown.

Magical realism based on traditional folk tales can often walk the fine line between twee sentimentalism, and full blown fantasy. Fortunately, Obrecht has done it perfectly in the story of the Deathless Man, who may be my favourite character in the novel, and one of the all time greats. A man who appears throughout Natalia’s grandfather’s life, he seems to appear at moments of great importance. As it turns out, he is akin to Death himself, helping people with their passage out of this world, and as such, has a lot of time for doctors. Of course, the real trick to magical realism is trying to decipher what these symbols mean – who the Deathless Man really is – and I’m still not completely sure what it is he is supposed to represent, though I’m open to suggestions. Perhaps the fact that we first meet him in a church is significant? Is he the personification of religious faith in the Balkans? Does that even work?

The eponymous tiger’s wife, too, toes that line closely. A young girl in a remote Balkan village falls in love with a tiger that escaped from the city zoo. He is, perhaps understandably, immediately feared by the rest of the village, but it is the young girl who takes him in, wanders around the town with him. Subverting the classic fairytale idea that the forest is a dangerous place for young virginal girls, Obrecht shows us a forest and landscape that actually, in many ways, nurtures the young girl, giving her a sense of place and identity. Once she becomes pregnant with the tiger’s baby, the village is torn between helping her and leaving her to rot for the despicable deed she has done.

In direct opposition to these fantastical tales of her grandfather’s time, Natalia’s life in the modern land is far more dull and depressing. Dealing with people who don’t want her help because she is from the “other side” of the war, her frustration is clear to see. It is clear she wants to make a difference in a part of the world that clearly needs help, but when the people who need it refuse, it is difficult to convince them otherwise.

Though the spectre of folklore, tradition and legend looms large, even here. Perhaps as a way of dealing with the horrors that have befallen the landscape, many people in the country re turning to tradition as a way of comforting themselves for what they have witnessed. People resort to a kind of shamanism and spirituality far removed from the Big Three (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), and have reverted to more local, “pagan” traditions of ghosts, spirits, and dead people not staying dead. It’s not done with any sense of irony or judgement, though, which makes a pleasant change, even for someone as cynical about these things as myself. And there’s no sense of glorifying these quaint traditions as a direct attack on anyone else’s

Without ever becoming sentimental, Obrecht has drawn an Eastern Europe with a sense of danger, a sense of past, and perhaps above all, a sense of magic. It is a novel about storytelling and history – about the stories and folktales people tell each other to explain the inexplicable, or make sense of events that are simply incomprehensible. A solid, well-written debut.

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The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay (2000) – Michael CHABON

I have a great deal of respect for the person Michael Chabon, born mainly out of the fact that he understands the importance of genre fiction, and the role it should play in more mainstream literary fiction. Also, he’s a fan of Doctor Who, which clearly makes him a person of discerning taste. I picked up Kavalier and Clay because it was his Pulitzer Prize winner, and because I needed a big book to take on holiday. It didn’t last the week.

It is 1939, and war is about to break out in Europe. Josef Kavalier has escaped Prague, and ended up in the bedroom of his American cousin, Sam Klayman. Both are trying to escape their lives – Joe, from the terrible state of his home, and Sam, from feelings he cannot quite describe. They pour their insecurities into the Escapist – a comic book that turns into a international phenomenon. But all good things must come to an end, and World War Two is marching ever closer.

Comic books are not just used for set decoration here, or simply as a way of pandering to a new kind of audience, though Chabon has a blinder of an idea in the Escapist. There’s a chapter explaining the entire origin story of him, and it’s one of the best pieces of writing you’re likely to find. Like all good superheroes (well, the ones I connect with), it’s the story of a simple man who has been wronged, and is simply looking for ways to right the wrongs of the world. Like Batman, the Escapist is not a superhero in the sense that he has special powers, rather more a glorified vigilante with a score to settle.

Chabon uses the idea of speculative fiction, and the escapes it can provide for people who feel trapped in their own humdrum lives, as a way of exploring these two characters’ deepest hopes and fears, of how they view themselves, and how others view them. Joe’s background in magic and escapology provide perhaps the perfect jumping off point for these ideas. Despite his having escaped the war, it is his constant struggle to get his brother, Thomas, over to America that provides his raison d’être. And so, in his comics, the Escapist is the man who can free anyone from any kind of tyranny. Of course, for Joe, that will almost always be the Nazi extermination of the Jews – his first attempt at a cover for the comic is the Escapist punching Hitler squarely on the jaw. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said for Joe’s motivations.

For a long time, Sam is a lot harder to work out. He seems like a typical New York kid, enthusiastic, excitable and clearly full of talent, though not for drawing. His imagination is something to marvel at, and the fact that he is able to come up with storyline upon storyline for the comic books his team writes is something to marvel at. Slowly, though, it becomes clear that there is a through line in all of these – every hero needs a sidekick, a plucky young man to help with the day to day life of being a caped crusader. Whether this is because of his repressed sexuality or some kind of deep seeded inferiority complex is never truly answered, though some not very nice people have a red hot go at portraying it as something rather immoral.

Unless you’re reading a Sarah Waters novel, it seems inevitable that gay relationships in historical fiction are doomed to fail. (I know, I’ve just linked you to TVtropes, and yes, you will be spending the next hour of your life surfing it). I don’t really think this is lazy writing on anyone’s behalf, but it has become such a cliche that it takes a good writer to make sure it doesn’t seem silly and tired. Fortunately, Chabon manages to just about get away with it, mainly because the pay off at the end of the novel is worth it. Sam’s relationship with Tracy is beautiful to watch unfold, and they really are an adorable couple. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the way in which it does is not fatal, but certainly final.

When Joe realises what Sam has given up, and why he has, it really highlights the love these two men have for each other. In a brotherly way, of course. In many ways, it’s difficult to decide which of the two men have sacrificed more in their lives. Joe has left his family behind in a war torn continent, but his own escaping to the war somehow balances it out. No matter what people say about sexuality not defining a person, Sam has given up his only path to happiness in order to fix the problem Joe has created. He denies his own desires for the sake of the woman and son Joe leaves behind in order to exact revenge on the faceless enemy that stole his brother. It’s all very tragic, and really, really depressing.

There’s even a little bit of comic book history, and though I’m not as well versed in it as, say, the history of television science fiction, I know enough to really appreciate that Chabon is clearly quite fond of the medium. Throughout the decades of the twentieth century, the Escapist is used by various people as a superhero of the time. Like all good ideas, he is constantly reinventable (yep, that’s definitely a word), and the forms he takes on are well thought out. The end of the novel highlights just how far the medium has come since those humble days in the 1930s: the book that Joe and Sam are working on is clearly symbolising the birth of the adult graphic novel, an artform that is still not viewed with the proper respect that it perhaps deserves.

As a final note, I did spend a lot of time as I was reading wishing I could read the adventures of the Escapist, because he just sounds so damn cool. And lo and behold, my wishes were answered! Chabon has worked with Dark Horse to bring the Escapist to the page. I’m off to go and check it out – I’m intrigued.

This is not a heavy or difficult read, despite its length. But it is excellent. Not “just” a story about superheroes, it is an insightful and intimate portrayal of two men dealing with their own shortcomings and failures, and finding ways to escape them. And if that’s not the most human thing you can do, I don’t know what is.

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American Dervish (2012) – Ayad AKHTAR

When I wrote a post about what it meant to be Asian, as part of the Man Asian Literary Prize, I lamented the fact that immigrant experiences, and stories of the Asian diaspora weren’t included in the field. I totally understand why this happened, but I have always been fascinated by immigrant stories, and that inherent tension between the culture of one’s parents, and the culture of one’s living space. Which is what made American Dervish such a promising read.

Hayat’s parents are Pakistani immigrants, trying to make a new life in America. His father is a doctor, his mother a housewife. When circumstances force his mother’s best friend, Mina, to move to America and live with his family, nothing will ever be the same again. Introducing him to the world of Islamic mysticism, Mina encourages Hayat’s growing interest in the religion of his homeland, and sets him on a path that could destroy the family.

Hayat, as a young boy struggling to find his own identity, trapped between an overbearing mother and a drunk, adulterous father, finds it easy to confide in Mina, who is clearly very attractive, both physically and mentally. As Hayat moves into puberty, a time that wrecks havoc upon the teenage brain, his own feelings towards her become more and more confused. It’s easy to see why he is attracted to her as a mentor and mother figure – his father is barely home, preferring to spend his nights getting drunk with young white girls, while his mother seems unable to see him as her son, instead pouring her marital problems onto him, despite his not wanting to know.

And then walks in a beautiful woman, willing to pay him attention, to see him as a real person, not just a kid. She shows him the mystic side of Islamic tradition, complete with whirling dervishes, and stories of an all powerful being, able to make your life better if you pray hard, and learn the Qu’ran by heart. One cannot help but wonder if she knew the damage she was doing – teaching religion to vulnerable people, offering them a way out of their unhappy lives, will always have consequences, particularly if the one doing the teaching is blindly unaware of the true limits of their influence.

There are some subtle character developments throughout the novel that show Akhtar as a promising storyteller. Perhaps my favourite is the fact that Hayat’s father is not the insane Islamic fundamentalist we are so used to seeing in Islamic stories. Instead, his refusal to be drawn into the bickering infighting of the Pakistani community, as well as his horror at many parts of the Islamic tradition sit uneasily with his alcoholic, womanising ways. As Hayat slowly moves to a path of dangerous fundamentalism, his father is watching, making sure he never goes too far. And then, when he finally does, it’s not an understatement to say that all hell breaks loose.

It’s funny that, while we all applaud the idea of immigration as a way for people to escape the persecution and bigotry of their homelands, this is not really something that ever happens. More than anything, this novel demonstrates just how ingrained some prejudices are and how, even in a country thousands of kilometres away from the actual conflict, the Arab-Israeli fighting has consequences around the world. Old world prejudices in the new world, are handed down from generation to generation, breeding a new kind of prejudice.

No one, it seems, escapes unscathed from the influence of religion in this novel. Hayat ruins the lives of many people courtesy of his desire to become a hafiz. His mother has spent most of her life blaming her husband’s behaviour on the simple fact that he is a Muslim man – she takes a very view dim of the traditional male/female roles outlined in Islamic culture. His father has been cast aside by the Pakistani community because he dares to call himself an atheist, finding little common ground between his own pursuits as a doctor and the more militant Islamism espoused by the leaders of the community. Mina’s life is ruined – no, that’s not the right word – decimated, by the fact she is ostracised to the point whereby she must reject the man she loves, in order to marry a man who – well, you’ll find out. Nathan, Mina’s Jewish boyfriend, too, finds being a Jewish man willing to convert to Islam for the sake of his love not as easy as he may have expected.

Whether this message was Akhtar’s original intention, or simply the way my views on religion have affected my reading of the novel, I’m not sure. But what is clear is that, in the end, Hayat can only find peace as a non-believer. And despite all that goes on, American Dervish doesn’t strike me as an angry novel. There is a sense of resignation, that it is simply impossible for people to move forward while still clinging on to old ways of thinking, old prejudices, old religions.

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The Orchard Keeper (1965) – Cormac McCARTHY

Cormac Mc Carthy is an author that has interested me greatly for a long time now – I blame No Country For Old Men, which is an excellent film, and you should all see it if you haven’t already. Picador have also reissued his backlist into these gorgeous new covers, making them almost irresistible. I’m aware that The Road is probably, now, his most well-known novel, but I figured I’d start at the beginning, and slowly make my way through his stuff, working up to The Road. Of course, by the time I get there, he may have written another one…

In a small town in rural Tennessee, two men hurtle towards each other, neither aware of the relationship that already exists between them. Marion Sydler is a rum-runner, trading alcohol during a period of prohibition. John Wesley Rattner is a young teenager who unwittingly gets caught up in the rum-running business. Years ago, though, Sydler murdered Rattner’s father in an altercation, something neither man knows.

Hands down the best part of this novel is McCarthy’s grasp of the English language (though some digging around on the internet seems to indicate he is a direct successor to William Faulkner, who I have now added to my list.) I’m struggling to think of an author so in command of the language – his descriptions of both landscape and humanity are collections of words you’d never have thought could or should go together, and somehow, he just makes them work. The sense of place this allows is palpable – each and every scene is vivid in one’s mind, from the colour of the sunlight to the individual leaves on each of the trees. I had intended on highlighting this through a quote, but I couldn’t find just one example. It’s all great.

Characters, too, are given the McCarthy treatment. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is a dearth of female characters, but his men are strong, gruff and isolated. The plot thread dealing with the trade of alcohol highlights the tense relationship between these criminals and the police, and the isolation felt in the wide spaces McCarthy describes simply accentuates the sense of wilderness, of frontier living that these characters so clearly inhabit. The old man, who features heavily in the lives of the two main characters, is withered and tired – he moves slowly and carefully, though it is clear there is a spark of life lingering underneath this exterior. There is a particularly poignant scene near the end where he is forcibly removed from his dog, and his reaction is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Sydler and Rattner remain closed off to the reader – there is never a hint of their own feelings about their actions. This makes Syddler in particular come of as a raving loony who cares not for anyone else, and since that’s all we have to go by, perhaps that is what we are invited to think. Perhaps he is a precursor to the insane man Javier Bardem plays in No Country for Old Men.

This sense of bleakness and violence – this Southern Gothic feeling for which McCarthy has become well-known – is perhaps no more evident in the murder around which the plot revolves. Sydler’s decision to kill Rattner’s father is the result of a fairly trivial car incident, but the violence and force with which he carries out the murder is so intense, so visceral, it’s hard not to feel that, perhaps, it was unwarranted. But on the road, where no one else can see you, and indeed, where no one else lives, there is no law, no rules governing the relationships between men. McCarthy’s suggestion that we would all revert so quickly to violence is terrifying.

Unfortunately, though, McCarthy’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. His over reliance on descriptors and sense of place means the plot itself does suffer. Fractured in the truest sense of the word, each chapter – indeed, almost each paragraph – is disconnected from the previous, and it is up to the reader to play catch up in trying to fill in the blanks. I had to turn back every now and then to try and work out if I’d missed something vitally important, but as it turns out, that’s simply the way of the book. One cannot help but wonder if a reread might be in order some time in the future to try and piece together exactly how everything joins together.

It’s hard for me to write a concrete, concise essay explaining how I felt about The Orchard Keeper. It is clear that McCarthy has a gift for manipulating the English language for his own purposes, as long as that purpose is describing landscapes. His inability to channel this into a more meaningful plot and set of characters is disappointing, though not enough to put me off eventually picking him up again.

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The Man Who Loved Children (1940) – Christina STEAD

This has been sitting on my shelf for years – I found a rather battered copy in a second hand bookstore, tried to get into it and failed, and since then, it’s languished on my to be read pile. When Melbourne University Press recently reissued it, I bit the bullet, and picked it up again to try and battle my way through it. It only took me about three months, in between exams and essays, but I finally finished it. And boy, I can’t quite believe what I’ve just read.

Samuel Pollit is the head of the family. His wife, Henny, is long-suffering, and seems to rather despise her own husband. And her own children. The gaggle of offspring Sam has amassed around himself adore their father, for he is always here for them, playing with them all hours of the day, seemingly inexhaustible. But something is about to change. The eldest daughter, Louie, is growing up fast, and she is beginning to see behind Sam’s act. And when she finally realises the true nature of her parents’ marriage, nothing will ever be the same again.

It slightly terrifies me that Christina Stead stated she never needed to write an autobiography, because her fiction was her life. The completely dysfunctional nature of the Pollit family presented here is an environment in which no child should be brought up, no matter how much Sam proclaims to love them.

Samuel Pollit is expertly drawn. At first, he comes off as nothing more than a loveable, slightly idiotic buffoon, a man clearly in love with his children perhaps slightly too much. But as Louie grows up, and slowly becomes the focal point of Sam’s anger and rage, we begin to realise that actually, he’s quite unbalanced, and really is not a big fan of women in general. His desire to have lots of children seems to stem from two places – the first, he is in love with the idea of childhood, the idea of innocence in a child. And in the eyes of these innocent child, he can make himself a hero, a father to be idolised with unconditional love. The second, and slightly more creepy place, is the idea that he sees mature women as nothing more than a baby making machine – his refusal to listen to Henny’s pleas for lenience, or indeed, for money to feed and clothe the children, highlights his complete contempt for the female of the species.

Louie – the Christina Stead surrogate character – is born from Sam’s first marriage, to a wife who died soon after Louie was born. As such, her relationship with Henny is not close. And since her father is a raving loony, she feels alone and isolated in the family unit. It is not until she arrives at school that she finds even one friend, and develops a slightly unhealthy attachment to one of her teachers, in an attempt to find a parental figure who will shower her with the love she so desperately requires.

Sam’s slow rejection of Louie as one of his children is directly related to her growing up – both mentally and physically. As she enters puberty, she is drawn to Henny, the only woman in the house, and becomes more interested in her mother’s side of the story, something none of the younger children have ever taken an interest in. It’s overly simplistic to say that it becomes a man versus woman kind of debate, but questions of gender do dominate Stead’s writing. Physically, too, Louie is becoming a woman, and she is constantly reminded, particularly by her father, that she is not an attractive young girl. This is, of course, not good for anyone’s mental health, but for a young girl who already has issues with her parents, this is perhaps even more damaging.

We were talking at work the other day about endings, and how a bad ending can ruin an otherwise excellent novel. This is not the case here – if anything, the last 150 or so pages of The Man Who Loved Children are the highlight. For it is not until the end of the novel that the full horror of Sam’s inability to even vaguely care for anyone other than himself is made clear. The impact this man’s hatred of the two women in his life – his wife, and his eldest daughter – has pushed them over the edge. The animosity between Sam and Henny is no longer under the surface  – they begin to fight in front of the children, and so so in such a manner that would put even Matthew Newton to shame. And as the fighting begins, the children begin to suffer. Louie begins to think that it is all her fault, and takes action to try and stop the fighting. I won’t tell you what that action is, but it is truly shocking, and actually, is a rather perfect ending.

I’m not sure anything I say about The Man Who Loved Children can be topped by Jonathan Franzen’s love letter to the novel in the New York Times from 2010. Having read The Corrections last year, it is clear just how much of an influence Stead has had on his own writing. I’m not sure I quite at the level of adoration Franzen clearly has for Stead, and her novel, but I think I’m probably pretty close. This is a novel that cries to be read, and though written more than 70 years ago, retains a sense of timelessness, perhaps even more pertinent at a time when the functional nuclear family is widely considered to be a myth.

And, on a completely unrelated note, this is the 150th novel I’ve written about here. That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?

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River of Smoke (2011) – Amitav GHOSH

I was both excited and annoyed when I found this novel on the longlist of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Excited, because I had wanted to read it long before its appearance, but annoyed, because I had planned on waiting until the third in the Ibis trilogy – of which River of Smoke is the second, and Sea of Poppies is the first – had been released, so I could do them all in one go. So it was with some trepidation that I began this novel, hoping I wasn’t ruining a rather anticipated reading experience.

Coming in as someone who has not read Sea of Poppies, it was somewhat dismaying to read the opening sections, which appeared to deal with the events of that novel. Fortunately, that sense of displacement doesn’t last long, and Ghosh pushes us head first into what is the bulk of the novel: the degradation of the relationship between the British and Chinese Empires, the beginning of the First Opium War, and the eventual creation of Hong Kong as a British outpost in South East Asia. And once Ghosh gets the story proper going, though – wow. Perhaps the thing that struck me most about the entire endeavour was that is was clear he has done a vast amount of research into this time period, with even the most basic details of everyday life for this group of foreigners living in Canton clearly and vividly presented.

Ghosh provides an exhaustive list of references at the end, but it is his gift that, apart from one or two passages, you do not feel like you are reading a dry history textbook about the period. He really makes each and every character come alive, and in this instance, I am including Canton as a character. There is a real sense of place here, from the sights and sounds of the bustling boats moored to the docks, to the food consumed at every meal. It is clear Ghosh is something of a gourmand, because he really does go to great pains to make you want to eat the meals provided.

Canton, too, is a place to be celebrated. A truly international trading city, the melting pot of ethnicities who make their living in the shipping industry provide a huge cast of characters and caricatures from which Ghosh can draw. Here are the early signs of globalisation, or internationalisation at work – a combination of early free trade capitalists, bringing their business to an Asian nation that is still unwilling to make full concessions to the new ways they are being strongly encouraged to adopt. It could be anywhere in Asia in the 21st century, but here it is, a good 170 years early. The only mutually understood language by all of these people is a kind of Creole, formed out of the marriage between Cantonese and English, and it is a testament to Ghosh that he not only uses this for huge chunks of dialogue, but makes it easy for his audience to understand.

Our two main characters – Bahram and Neel – are Indians caught up in the opium trade. Bhram is the master of a company that ships opium into China, and Neel is his newly acquired assistant. Between the two of them, we are allowed a glimpse into the ways in which foreigners (by which I mean, the British Empire and the Americans) were conducting the opium trade. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the fact that opium was not a Good Thing, having banned the stuff in their own lands, but they were more than willing to exploit the Chinese market, and sell it there, despite the trade restrictions. I love the indignation of everyone – including Bahram – when the Chinese do an about face, and tell them that, actually, those restrictions will be enforced, and if you don’t comply, heads will roll. Literally. There’s a nice poetic justice to it, though as it turns out, it is not perhaps the best news for Bahram, who is already deep in debt with his investors in India.

I don’t know if Paulette features heavily in the first novel, but in River of Smoke, she seems little more than an excuse for Ghosh to write the letters of Robin Chinnery. I am not really complaining, because these letters are absolutely brilliant, but it does mean Paulette does get sidelined fairly early on in the action. From her promising start as a cross-dressing botanist, to her burgeoning friendship with Fitcher Penrose, a charmingly gruff Scottish botanist, she very quickly disappears off the page, and her name is reduced to nothing more than a destination for Robin’s letters.

But those letters – oh, what a gift they are. There is nowhere else in the novel that highlights the kind of mastery Ghosh has over the English language. Through language alone, he manages to conjur up a (hilariously) camp artist from the 1830s, whose love of men is at once flamboyant and tragic. His quest to find Paulette’s golden camellia sends him on a wild adventure around Canton, meeting a wide variety of people outside of the merchant houses that form the somewhat claustrophobic setting of the other two narrative strands. It also provides him with several potential “Friends”, as he so coyly calls them, and his retellings of his attempts to woo them actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

There’s no point in me banging on about how wonderful this novel is any more. Suffice it to say, I’m sold on the Ibis trilogy. I’m sad that I didn’t read them in order, but I will now go out and find Sea of Poppies (once John Murray have given it a better cover), and devour that, too. And I have now joined the long list of people eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy, whenever that may arrive. Needless to say, I hope (and suspect) River of Smoke will make its way onto this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist.

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Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) – Philip ROTH

I managed to pick this up cheap the other day, and after all the fuss about Roth winning the Man Booker International Prize earlier in the year,  I was curious to know just what kind of author he was. I’ve heard a lot about him from a lot of people, and most of it has been pretty positive. I also didn’t want to commit to starting the Zuckerman series, because I didn’t want to get it wrong. So this seemed like a good starting point.

Alex Portnoy has a problem – his mother. The woman just won’t leave him alone, despite his having passed thirty, and having a rather swanky public service job crusading for human rights. As he tells his therapist about his life, and just how terrible his mother is, he detours and twists to explain just why he can’t seem to have a proper, fulfilling relationship with any woman, and why, maybe, he just doesn’t really care. Or does he?

Portnoy’s Complaint was written more than forty years ago, but I was constantly surprised at just how modern and alive it felt. Turn Portnoy into any of the other minority groups that are now living the American dream thanks to their enterprising parents, and you’ll probably end up with a similar tension and anger that permeates this novel. Portnoy is a very, very angry young man – there’s no doubt about that. He blames his overbearing, smothering mother for the problems he now has with women; he seems to hate white Americans because of their white privilege, while at the same time wanting desperately to be a part of the cool group; he hates being Jewish, because he doesn’t even believe in God. Replace any of these with, say, Muslim immigrants, or Asian immigrants, or African immigrants, and you can see how much of an influence authors like Roth have had on immigrant literature in America.

At the same time, though, there is something deeply, inherently Jewish about Roth’s writing. Alex’s mother issues – which are really family issues more than anything else – stem from this weird relationship he has with his parents and what they represent. They are first generation Jewish immigrants, complete with English studded with Yiddish. (Seriously, there’s a lot of Yiddish in this novel, though I understood about 90% of it, so it doesn’t make anything unreadable.) Despite him being in his early thirties, his parents are still on his back for not having settled down with a nice (Jewish) girl and having some grandchildren. They – his mother in particular – see it as an affront to all they have done for Alex that he doesn’t even have to common decency to provide them with grandchildren.

Of course, whether this is an accurate portrayal of his parents is the ultimate question. Told as a bizarre stream of consciousness to his therapist, there is no reason to trust Alex as a narrator. For all we know, he could be exaggerating everything – his parents may even be lovely people. But I think we can all identify with Alex, even just a little – we all of us have had moments in our lives when, even though we’ve grown up and moved out of the parental house, our parents still get on our nerves for the littlest of things.

Stylistically, too, Roth is masterful. Alex’s voice is carefully balanced between the literary and the conversational, the intelligent and the crude. I love a good bit of (appropriate) swearing in a novel, and Roth does not disappoint. If you are in any way offended by descriptions of masturbation, intense threesomes, or even raunchy descriptions of lady bits, you would be well advised to not read Portnoy’s Complaint. For those of us who do enjoy all of these things, though, there’s a lot to love here. I know some people are mortally offended by swearing, and think it vulgar and unintelligent, but a well timed expletive can be just as devastating and effective as anything else. On a similar note, I’ve never seen the word c**t in print quite so many times as I have in this novel.

I hesitate to compare Roth to a 21st century sitcom character, but if anyone’s seen The Big Bang Theory, there’s an excellent analogy to be made. Alex Portnoy is the precursor to Howard Wolowitz, and all of those slightly messed up, sexually frustrated, mother-issue-laden young Jewish men that are now so popular in, well, pop culture. Portnoy’s Complaint carries its age well – there’s a verve and energy throughout Roth’s writing that makes him fun to read. I’m eager to find more.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) – Junot DÍAZ

One of the things I love about second-hand bookstores is that you can find things for cheap that you might have been unsure about buying. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was one of these, and after it languished on my pile for a long time, I finally picked it up, needing something a little bit different to all the older, translated stuff I’ve been ploughing through lately.

Oscar de León is the latest in a long line of de Leons whose life is less than stellar. He is overweight, boring, depressed, and unloved by almost every girl he meets. To understand why his life is so terrible, our narrator takes us back to the Dominican Republic, and several decades, and tells us the story of the de León family, and what is was that has caused all this bad luck for the family.

Before reading this, I was deeply ignorant of the history of the Dominican Republic. Fortunately, our intrepid narrator assumes every reader has a similar level of knowledge, and fills in the gaps. Tying a family’s history to that of a country has been done time and time again (see The Stranger’s Child, for example), but when you don’t know anything about the history of the country, it becomes even more of an interesting read. Fortunately, the history lesson never overshadows the story of the characters, which is also nice. Díaz is particularly concerned with painting Rafael Trujillo, the insane dictator of the Domonican Republic for much of the century, as just that – an insane man. This sense of irreverence really works – just as Hitler was made fun of in Doctor Who this year, so too is Trujillo ridiculed through his actions in the novel.

I mention Doctor Who for two reasons. The first is that I watch far too much of it for my own good, and the second being that Díaz has peppered this novel with pop culture references like nobody’s business. Superman, Batman, and a myriad of other superheroes get a look in here – and I don’t know whether to be proud or saddened because I understand almost all of them. Pop culture – and comic culture, in particular – references can be cheesy when used by an author trying desperately to be hip, cool and postmodern – and while Díaz is all of those things, it never feels like he’s trying too hard to portray this image. It flows naturally and logically from the voice of the narrator.

I don’t want to tell you who the narrator is – suffice it to say, it is one of the minor characters in the novel – but there’s a lot to be said for the voice. It is postmodern, complete with self-reflexive moments, as well as copious footnotes and asides. We are constantly reminded of the fact that the narrator is relating to us the story of the de León family as told to us by Oscar Wao. He freely admits that there are things within the story he himself does not understand – particularly the question of the fukú, and whether this curse is real.

Oscar himself is somewhat tangential to the main thrust of the narrative Díaz takes us on. More than anything, this is the story of women – particularly the de León family women. Oscar’s sister, Lola, and their mother, Beli, have a fractious relationship, clashing because neither understands the other. Beli, brought up in the Dominican Republic by her father’s cousin, La Inca, cannot fathom Lola’s American ways. Beli, too, has a turbulent relationship with her guardian, La Inca, and their constant fights mean they do not speak to each other for a very long time.

We then jump even further back, and explore the lives of Beli’s family, and the origin of the curse – Oscar’s grandfather, and the “Bad Thing he said about Trujillo.” Once again, Trujillo’s figure looms large, and his effect on the de León family can be seen as some kind of metaphor for his effect on the Dominican Republic on a larger scale. Clearly, Díaz has a bone to pick – and fair enough, really.

This is not just another ethnic novel about the growing Hispanic and Caribbean population of the United States. Díaz concerns himself with universal themes about the relationships between men and women, about the stories of families and how their history informs their current way of life, and about survival. The characters of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao do not get off lightly. They are put through the wringer again and again, but most of them survive. Whether this survival is worth it, though, is something you will have to work out for yourself.

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