Tag Archives: colonialism

The Hungry Ghosts (2009) – Anne BERRY

Publishing imprints are strange beasts – for some people they mean nothing, but for others (usually obsessive, like myself), they are vitally important. And they really are, I think. While they may not always get it right, publishers usually publish books in certain imprints depending on where they want to pitch it to the market. HarperCollins’ new imprint, Blue Door, has not even released its first book yet, but if The Hungry Ghosts is anything to go by, I’ll be keeping an eye out.

The Safford family are one of the most important families in British-occupied Hong Kong. Their daughter, Alice, is an unruly child who is always getting into trouble. What her family does not realise, though, is that the reason for this is that she is haunted by a hungry ghost – a 12 year old Chinese girl raped and murdered some twenty years before. As Alice’s life rapidly spirals out of control, more ghosts come to her, and she must try and stop them taking over her life before it is too late.

It took me a while to get into this novel, though I can’t exactly pinpoint the reason for this. When it finally clicked for me, though, I read about three quarters of it in one afternoon. I wonder if the thing that was putting me off was the way the story was told. Each chapter is told from an alternating viewpoint, and many of the chapters are told by incidental characters. This doesn’t mean the story is fragmented – far from it, considering these chapters are very sequential, and we often get the same event told from different points of view. To some extent, Berry does this quite well, and some of the voices are quite distinctive, particularly the Ghost and Myrtle (Alice’s mother), but many of the incidental and more peripheral main characters do tend to blend into one another.

Yet, this fragmented view is a neat trick in a book that centres itself as a family saga. Despite the literary fireworks surrounding some of the magical realism facets, being able to tell a family saga from the point of the view of the entire family is a good idea. To set it against the British occupation of Hong Kong (going all the way up to the handover in 1997) is also a good plan – Berry is clearly writing to her strengths, but the Saffords are clearly very ‘British’, if you get my meaning. They have servants, Ralph (the father) works for the Governor, Myrtle is the perfect socialite in English circles, their children are bundled off to the motherland for a proper education, and it’s all just a little bit colonial. Which makes their inevitable fall tie in quite nicely to the eventual fall of the Safford family, though it is interesting to see that Harry (the son) is actually the one to make it out moderately sane, considering his less than happy childhood.

What makes this book quite unique, though, are the magical realist parts of the novel, Inspired by the Chinese festival Yue Lan, this book takes a simple concept from Chinese Buddhism, and spins an entire novel around it. I like the concept of hungry ghosts – spirits of people and beings that refuse to move on, and instead attach themselves to unsuspecting humans, ruining their lives. These things are clearly dangerous creatures, and as Alice acquires more and more of them, she is weighed down by guilt and depression, forcing her to resort to desperate measures. Thinking of these ghosts, I can see that maybe Berry uses them as a metaphor for something else – Alice is an unwanted child and is subject to all kinds of callous and careless treatment, particular from her mother, who is out to make Alice’s life as difficult as possible. Not on purpose, mind, but she has such contempt and such little patience for Alice’s ways, she takes it out on Alice herself. Perhaps, then, we can see the ghosts she carries as guilt over this childhood, perhaps she feels somewhat responsible for the way she was treated. Either way, these ghosts are causing Alice a great depression, and it is thoroughly believeable – the lead ghost is a malevolent, childish creature that I personally felt little sympathy for. This makes the ending a little hard to swallow, though I think I can see what Berry was trying to do.

If this is the kind of novel Blue Door are going to be publishing regularly, I’d keep a look out. I promise this isn’t a plug for them (even though I keep mentioning them), but this novel is quite good. There are certainly some things that don’t quite fit in, but this is Berry’s first attempt, and I’m very interested to see what she does next.

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Remembering Babylon (1993) – David MALOUF

And so a new university year begins, and along with it, a list of books I have to read. On the plus side, the course I’m doing this  year is all about contemporary Australian writing, so there’s some pretty good stuff on the list. And this is the first book on a list of books that I am really looking forward to. Granted, I’ve already read some of them, but I am being introduced to major Australian writers – like David Malouf.

As three young children are playing on their property in outback Queensland one day, their life is turned upside down by the appearance of a man who comes out of the bush. He appears to be white, but acts like an Aboriginal. After much discussion, the town places the man in the care of this family, whose lives will be turned upside down as the thoughts and opinions of everyone else in the town are slowly revealed, and things begin to get out of hand.

What a fantastic concept Malouf has taken hold of in this novel. That a young white boy could be brought up by an Aboriginal tribe, then attempt to be reintegrated into ‘civil’ society is brilliant. So often we get novels about what it means to ‘be’ Aboriginal, or what it means to ‘be’ a certain ethnicity. And the really smart thing Malouf has done in Remembering Babylon is that Gemmy himself doesn’t get very much screen time. Told from varying points of view, Gemmy himself gets only two chapters in the novel. Which is enough, because for Gemmy, the way he has been brought up is not unusual – it just is. For him, there’s no quest for identity, no question of who or what he is, because he is all he has ever known. On the other hand, the other chapters deal with how the people in the white settlement deal with their own views of what Gemmy is, and what he represents. Perhaps most touching is the relationship Gemmy and Jock, the father of the family share. Malouf has written it perfectly, with Gemmy as the overenthusiastic young child you can’t get rid of, and Jock the exasperated father. It’s beautifully done, and when all hell breaks loose, it works a treat.

I think the other thing that Maloouf does very well is to createa town where no one belongs. As the beackgrounds of each of the major players is slowly revealed, everything begins to make sense. Each and every one of these people resents living in Australia (well, pre-Federation Australia), and I don’t think any of them really want to be there. Some of them thought they were going to South Africa, others Canada, but none were ready for the harsh reality of the Australian sun. And this really plays into their reactions to Gemmy and the events that occur around him – their prejudices towards the Aboriginals, and to each other, are all revealed, and everyone is unhappy. Oddly enough, I loved the priest, Mr Frazer, who writes this beautiful passage near the end of the affair, where he is promoting the idea of a truly Australian way of farming – and everyone, including the Premier of Queensland, shoots him down. Again and again, these European people cling to their European sensibilities in the hope that it will save them.

Much like in this review, the ending of the novel does peter out a little out, and we’re never totally sure how the events of the one year or so that Gemmy lived in town actually affect everyone. What does show, though, is the affect it has on the children who found him in the first place – they are never able to forget him and what he brought to their town. And for them, it was pretty good. Now, I need to go and find more Malouf…

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The Lieutenant (2008) – Kate GRENVILLE

Ah, the joys of working in a bookshop. This book is embargoed until later this month, but I managed to get my grubby little hands on an advance copy, since I am a big fan of Kate Grenville. And by that, I mean I, like everyone else, was swept away by The Secret River, despite never having heard of her before. To be honest, before I started reading this, my bosses had told me that they didn’t like it very much, and after reading the blurb, I was worried she was trying to cash in on the formula that made The Secret River so popular.

The eponymous Lieutenant is Thomas Rooke, a man sent to the penal colony of New South Wales on the First Fleet, not as a convict, but as a Navy marine. While previous experiences in the Navy conflict with his highly scientific mind, and his hopes of becoming an astronomer, he hopes for the best in this new land. However, once the Fleet arrives, Rooke separates himself from the rest of the settlers, and begins to discover that this land is full of far more surprises than passing comets.

Ok, I have to get this out of the way first. Yes. Kate Grenville has written a novel very similar to The Secret River. But no, that does not make it bad. While the elements that made her last novel so good (well, the bits I liked, anyway) are present again in this novel, they both feel very different. Both feature solitary males going out into the Australian bush in the beginnings of white Australian history, and both deal with their interaction with the Aboriginal populations. While The Secret History, however, deals with this on a far more intense and psychological level, The Lieutenant, while certainly not a happy book, seems almost to have a sense of defeat, right from the beginning. The scenes of Rooke happily interacting with Aboriginals, in the hope of learning their language through the scientific method, are so happily naive, that you know they are not going to end well. And I like the casual rejection of the idea that a language can be learned scientifically and cut off from the culture from which it has come – as a student of foreign languages, it really appeals to me.

This book is based very closely on a real person – William Dawes, from whom Dawes Point is now named. His life, having researched thoroughly (on wiki…), is pretty artfully brought out by Grenville, giving his young fascination with science a focus that borders on autism. I liked Rooke. He was of his time, while still being progressive. I tend to think that most contemporary authors writing about times of colonialism and imperialism tend to be very heavy handed in the “look at how wrong these terrible people are” (not that I disagree at all, I might add), but honestly, if there were that many people who thought progressively about these things in the past, they wouldn’t have existed.

I said to myself I wouldn’t compare these two works, but that seems to have gone down the drain a bit. There are certain similarities, and no doubt, detractors of The Lieutenant will quote them ad infinitum. But ultimately, the two novels do very different things. The Lieutenant is a much smaller, much more intimate musing on the ideas of friendship, language and culture, and proves an ultimately diverting and enjoyable, if short, read.

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The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam (2008) – Lauren LIEBENBERG

Yes, that is the insanely long title of this book. Though, I do think that it is an excellent title, that really stands out. And, even though I have to read another Haggard novel for class, this won out, because I figured there was going to be less racism and misogyny. Then I realised that this was another book about white people in Africa. My bad.

Nyree and Cia are two young girls growing up in Rhodesia – that state of Africa that we now like to call Zimbabwe. Set during the war between the English settlers and the troops of ‘Terrs’ – that is, people fighting to kick the English out – it manages to use this only as a backdrop to the more intimate story of Nyree and Cia’s childhood. In particular, it marks the story of their cousin Ronin, who is sent to live with them during his school holidays. This turns out to be not such a good idea, as the balance of power in the family slowly changes, and the simple balance of family is upset forever.

I think the best thing that Liebenberg does in this novel is not focusing on the war that is going on around this family. While it is certainly ever-present – Nyree’s father is in the English army, fighting against Mugabe’s troops – it is not the focus of the novel. Instead, it provides a backdrop to what is perhaps not the most unique coming of age story, though certainly a very good one. Once again, I am going to make a small point about the ‘voice’ of the main character who, despite being nine years old, manages to use language well beyond her age. Though, this time, I am not going to complain. I kind of got the feeling from this novel that Nyree was telling someone her story – her use of the present tense perhaps helped – and it was a refreshing change to have a child narrator who is not some kind of tortured genius.

While the story of Ronin is the most important part of the novel, it has so much more to offer. Each chapter is almost a self-contained episode, and the Ronin ones kind of fit together to form the over-arching narrative that pays off in the end. It is clear that this novel is based on Liebenberg’s life – she probably had episodes from her own life in Rhodesia, and adapted them/changed them a bit to fit in with this story. There is one scene that I had to skip over, but it is near the end, and I’m sure most other people will have no trouble with it.

Nyree and Cia are the main characters, but the other characters are well defined, and certainly not boring. The girls’ insane, religious, imperial grandfather provides them with a warped education, and provides the ‘old voice’ of the colonisers of Africa. Ronin himself is a bastard, and nothing more, especially considering he is 14. By the end of the novel, you really hate him. Which is what he is there for, I suppose. And I have to make special mention of Moosejaw, one of the best literary dogs ever.

It took me a while to get into this book – the beginning chapters are pretty slow. And, to be fair, some of the chapters that don’t have Ronin, while nice, just seem to fade away sometimes. It is when Ronin is in full-swing that the story comes together and becomes really good. This is a solid first novel (and educational, too, since I didn’t know anything about Rhodesia before this), and hopefully the first of many.

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King Solomon’s Mines (1885) – H. Rider HAGGARD

I’m not dead! Sorry it has taken so long for me to write another review – I have been insanely busy with uni stuff and the such. But, now that I am back into the full swing of things, I can review the stuff that I have been reading lately. I have to read nine (!) novels for one of my courses, so there will definitely be some reviews coming along soon. This novel is the first on the course list, so what better place to start?

Allan Quatermain is a middle-aged Englishman living in the wilds of Southern Africa. When he is approached by two men – Henry Curtis and John Good – to help them find Curtis’ lost brother, and also some very big, and very valuable diamond mines, Quatermain’s sense of adventure is piqued. So begins one of the most famous adventure novels of all time, that has influenced everyone from Clive Cussler to Matthew Reilly. Three upright English gentlemen and their ‘helpers’ travel to the depths of Africa, to discover lost lands, treasures, and evil witch-doctors.

As with every novel, there are some phrases and ideals that seem very, very out of place in today’s world. Though, this one takes the cake. King Solomon’s Mines is one of the most misogynistic (going so far as to say the death of a woman was probably a good thing), racists (let’s not even mention the descriptions of the ‘natives’), and anti-environmentalist (you killed how many elepahnts?!) books I have ever read.

The only major problem with the story itself is that it is not very good. Well, no, that’s not totally true. The original intention of the characters is largely forgotten in most of the action, instead, Haggard relies on a twist that is insanely obvious (though, to his credit, he deals with it quickly), to trigger events that make up the majority of the book. It is not until the almost epilogue-style last few chapters that the original intention of the expedition is remembered, and acted upon.

Haggard wrote this book as a challenge – one of his friends had told him he could not write a novel as good as Treasure Island. I think his friend was right. Quatermain ‘puts’ a little note at the beginning of his text, saying he is just writing what happened to him, not caring about the style and such. This is certainly true. As with a large number of other adventure novels of the time (see, for example, The First Men in the Moon), I find it very difficult to believe that these very proper English gentlemen could ever find themselves in a situation like this, and somehow manage to remain pompous and maintain a sense of superiority about everyone they meet. Though, in a sense, this is exactly what this book is really all about. It is about the white man in the colonies, who, despite the barbarians around him, manages to maintain a sense of dignity and evolution – the latter point more pertinent with the publication of Darwin’s works.

If you are looking for some kind of retro fix when it comes to adventure novels, give this a go. Be warned, though, there are some seriously offensive passages that you should watch out for. Or, you could just go and read the latest Clive Cussler/Matthew Reilly/Dan Brown, which are, at the very least, more relevant and less offensive.

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Heart of Darkness (1899) – Joseph CONRAD

So, here’s the first book I have to read this year. As such, forgive me if I go all English student on you. My bad. I have just had a lecture about this, let’s be fair, quite famous and controversial book. Well, controversial if you are in the book world. I don’t know about the rest of you people…

Heart of Darkness is a story within a story. While we being on the river Thames, we end up in the Congo River, in deepest darkest Africa (though maybe I’m not allowed to say that.) Marlowe, our intrepid hero, has been sent on a steamboat by ‘the Company’, in whose employ he finds himself, down the Congo River to find Mr. Kurtz, a renegade member of the Company, who is selling ivory, making a mint, and not giving the money to the Company.

The story itself is quite simple. It is Conrad’s style, however, that makes this book worthy of ‘classic’ (for want of a better word) novel status. While he is often considered a forerunner to the modernists (read: really hard to read 20th century literature), I found it to be deeply enjoyable. There are, of course, some quite dense parts, but when you read them carefully, the meaning behind them becomes clear, and really lucid.

Conrad is concerned with a whole load of things, including British colonialism, the inhabitants of Africa, and the effect this continent has on people. It is this last part that makes a real impression. On me, anyway. All of the characters (white ones, anyway) are not quite there in their head. The people running the Company in the Congo have become wild – almost reverted to their more natural, primeval states. Marlowe himself is not unaffected by this change – he also takes time to think about his own experiences in this crazy, very not-British land, and comes up with no definitive answers.

It is, however, the character of Mr. Kurtz who becomes the star of this novel. While having very little stage time, his presence and legend is woven throughout the whole (admittedly short) novel, and his journey from (assumed) normal life as a British man, into what he is at the end, is very, very important.

I’m going to refrain from getting any more technical than that, or I will start writing my assignment, and you don’t want to read that. I am, however, going to quickly talk about the controversy that surrounds this book. Famous African author, Chinua Achebe, attacked this novel in 1975, citing Conrad’s portrayal of the African people as racist. Now, I’m going to be honest, I don’t really see this. Conrad is, I think, no more racist than any other British person at the turn of the 20th century. Some of his descriptions of the native people are, let’s face it, quite shocking when you compare them to today’s world. But I wouldn’t have said racist.

Misogynistic, however… That I will give to Conrad.

Heart of Darkness is very good. It has withstood the test of the last century, and despite many other books attempting similar things (the exploration of the unknown continent, and all that) , this novel stands up as one of the best. Conrad’s characters, prose and narrative (the big three) are all going to leave a good impression. And, at less than 150 pages, it’s quick, too.

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