Tag Archives: England

The City & the City (2009) – China MIEVILLE

Two years ago, I was blown away by the brilliance of Embassytown. The ability to take spec fiction tropes and use them to interrogate a whole raft of ideas—ranging from linguistic theory to postcolonial critiques—reminded me why I love spec fiction so much. So here I am again, back to worship at the altar of the big, bald socialist that is China Miéville.

Somewhere in the depths of Eastern Europe, in a small city called Besźel, a girl has been murdered. But when Inspector Tyodor Borlú begins investigating the case, even he cannot imagine where it will lead him— Besźel’s greatest nemesis, and closest neighbour, Ul Qoma.

Though there are glimpses of the brilliance seen in Embassytown—including a gift for imaginative linguistics every other fantasy author on the planet would kill to have—The City & the City does not reach the heights of Miéville’s sci-fi masterpiece. His desire to stick slavishly to the procedural crime novel genre doesn’t give him the chance to move out of a fairly limiting structure and style, though there is no question he pulls of the style perfectly. And the twist ending is a little silly—I get that Miéville is a proper socialist, but the twist (“capitalism is the bad guy!”) undercuts the beautiful work he does in foreshadowing secret societies, rogue nationalists and perhaps even fantasy creatures.

Having said all that, the core concept at the heart of The City & the City is so brilliant, I can almost forgive the other stuff. This is a novel about the ways in which humans throw up arbitrary borders around our groups and the ways in which we exclude people from our lives simply because they are different. At first glance, the idea that two cities could occupy the same space seems inherently ridiculous. How could people possibly be taught to ignore the parts of their surroundings that are considered to be foreign? Remember, it is not just the space they share—they have a common history, a common archaeology, even a common architecture. How do you convince people that these identical things are really unique?

Yet that is exactly what we all do, each and every day we are alive. We teach ourselves to see the things we don’t want to as we walk through town—the charity workers trying to fleece our spare change, those supermarkets with signs written in a script we don’t understand, that homeless man begging for money.

Take, for example, my hometown. Though Sydney is widely held up as a successful model for integrating various ethnic and cultural groups into one city, so often, the real world application of these policies ends up more like these Miévillean (I’m totally making that a word, by the way) parallel cities. We all move through our lives taking in only the parts of the city that directly relate to us—we actively block out the ones that we believe have nothing to do with us. Taking this point to its logical conclusion is this novel’s greatest strength. By exaggerating the human characteristic, Mieville forces us to re-examine how we (literally) view the world around us.

Despite the genre and structure issues in The City & the City, an average Miéville book is still going to make you think about the world in which you live—who else would be able to come up with the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma? Once again he proves that the best kind of spec fiction focuses on ideas and themes, and not flashy aliens and dragons

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Harvest (2013) – Jim CRACE

I have never read Jim Crace before. Nay, I had never even heard of Jim Crace before he was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Crace has said that Harvest will be his last novel, though I’m not sure I ever believe an artist when they say they’re done.

The harvest is over. The townspeople are ready to celebrate the end of the season with their annual Gleaning, the party to end all parties. But on the morning of the celebrations, two things happen. The first is an act of arson. The second is the arrival of a trio of unwelcome strangers. As the town tries to decide if the two are connected, events rapidly escalate.

The sense of unease that defines this novel starts almost on the first page. A barn is set on fire, and though our narrator believes it to be the work of several local young hooligans, they deny any connection. Then, three strangers turn up—and the townspeople are quick to draw their own conclusions about the interlopers.

As an Australian in 2013,  it’s hard not to read this novel without thinking of the current political discourse, which has found itself stuck in a race to the bottom, where we do everything in our power to stop a few thousand people from entering our country because they are fleeing persecution. So when faced with a novel that is exactly about the relationship between the us and the them, it’s hard not to find points of resonance. Of particular interest is the—to my eyes—wild overreach in terms of punishment metered out to the two men who are caught after the barn fire is put out.

Stuck in the middle of this war is Walter. Though he has lived in the town for many years, he was not born there, and as such, is still viewed with some suspicion by many of the townspeople who were born and raised there. But at the same time, to the three interlopers, he is nothing but another faceless member of a harsh village. Perhaps this is why, at the beginning of the novel, he is hesitant to call out the three he believes to have actually caused the fire. And, as has been proven through history again and again, when a good person fails to speak up, a situation can rapidly get out of hand, and violence ensues.

There is a danger when an author decides to write an historical novel in olde-worlde English. Too often, it comes off either as tone deaf, or so cloyingly twee, you want to throw it against a wall. Fortunately, Crace does not put a step wrong in his evocation, not only of an historical mindset, but of an historical English, complete with words and phrases that are no longer common.

At the time of writing, Harvest is the favourite to win this year’s prize. I’ve still only read a handful of novels, and at the moment, it’s certainly in my top two or three. On the surface, this is a simple novel about a crime that goes horribly wrong, but dig a little deeper, and you find a novel trying to grapple with timeless themes, and perhaps advocating for a little more kindness in our lives.

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The Islands (1999) – Carlos GAMERRO

I am young enough to have a negligible understanding of the Falklands War. If you were to ask me to point to them on a map, I would struggle. If you asked me why two countries on opposite sides of the world were fighting of what appear to be some rocks in the ocean, I probably couldn’t give you an answer. I couldn’t tell you if England or Argentina had a more legitimate claim to them. Please bear this in mind as I review a huge Argentinian novel about the Falklands War.

It’s been ten years since the end of Falklands War. Felipe Félix was there, but has now become a slacker computer hacker, spending much of his time high. One day, he is summoned to the office of a very rich, very powerful and very secretive. The man has a job for him—find the person his son killed. As Felipe digs down, he finds that, for a lot of people, the war hasn’t ended, and that he is slowly being drawn back in.

There is no way to adequately describe what Gamerro is trying to do in The Islands in a short blog post. I will leave the big questions up to the academics who are no doubt salivating over the whole thing. What I do want to talk about, though, is the structure, and the way in which it creates a kind of fractured narrative about war, about national identity, and about the future.

Marketing books is hard. Marketing indie translations is even harder. So when And Other Stories call The Islands “a detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir,” it sounds like they are trying to cover all their bases, to get as many people reading the novel as possible. As it turns out, they are actually quite close to the truth. The first section could be ripped right out of any cyperpunk novel of the late 80s/early 90s, with a computer hacker getting a mysterious summons to a skyscraper made exclusively out of one-way mirrors. It’s inventive, bizarre, philosophical, and confrontingly violent.

It is something of a surprise, then, when Chapter Two takes a huge turn, and becomes a detective novel, mixed with surreal scenes of a shady Argentinian public service. Genre hopping becomes commonplace throughout the novel, and Gamerro takes us from crime novel to war memoir, road trip to cyperpunk in almost self-contained chapters that all build up a picture of a war that, for many people, never really ended.

Clearly threaded throughout this, though, is the way in which Argentina, and Argentinians, responded to losing the war. It is what drives our protagonist—both physically and emotionally—to seek out the answers he has been asked to find. Several sections are written as flashbacks to the war itself, in which Felipe Félix himself was a conscript. These glimpses into the war are not pretty—much of it seems pointless, with the officers in particular more concerned with their own egos than questioning their own actions.

The Islands is too long for its own good—I got bored and stopped every few sections. It tends to ramble, often repeating thematic beats that have already been explored, and sometimes loses narrative focus in favour of drug trips and conversations on philosophy. I’m terrified by the afterword, in which Gamerro suggests this English edition has been cut down significantly from the original Spanish.

Taken on their own, though, each section in The Islands is a little masterpiece, exploring everything from love, lust, father/son relationships, computer science and wartime nationalism—but always through the lens of the Falklands War. One cannot help but wonder if this makes it the archetypal contemporary Argentinian novel.

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Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009) – Kristina CARLSON

My subscription to the 2013 season of Peirene Press novellas/short novels is chugging along nicely—the second of the collection turned up on my doorstep several weeks ago. I very much enjoyed the first Peirene book I read, and though there’s really nothing connecting this novel—a contemporary Finnish novel from Kristina Carson—with the last—an 80s novel from Germany—Peirene has made a name for itself by being a brand of a certain kind of novel. Does this novel, then, reach the heights of The Mussel Feast?

The blurb of Mr Darwin’s Gardener proudly proclaims that this is a postmodern Victorian novel. That doesn’t make a lot of sense; the schools of Victorianism and postmodernism are, I would argue, almost diametrically opposed—not just in the obvious, superficial stylistic features, but in their very world view. Victorian novels are famed for their moral and moralistic stances on issues of the times; postmodern novels revel in the presentation of multiple points of view, ensuring they do not privilege any particular stance.

Having said all this, there is a way to arrive at a kind of syncretic point between the two: John Fowles managed to take postmodern sensibilities—the idea of an unreliable narrative structure—and put them into an ostensibly Victorian context and framework in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The most obviously postmodern technique Carlson uses in her novel is her use of shifting perspectives. Opening paragraphs of sections begin in the third person, but every paragraph after that is told in first person, our narrator being the previously mentioned character. It fractures the narrative, creating a kaleidoscope of points of view, each one slightly different. We are allowed into the minds of so many people in this small village, each one similar, but just different enough to be recognised.

What does shine through all of this stylistic pyrotechnics is the idea that a closed-minded, small-world-thinking culture is potentially harmful to those who don’t share the same view. In many ways, it is a critique of the small-mindedness of Victorian sensibilities, particularly when it comes to things like science, love and illness.

These Victorian values are particularly apparent in the small town’s mob reaction to two events. The first is Thomas’ moving to the village. Having no wife, forced to bring up his two young children by himself, there are constant whisperings about his own ability to do so. The second is a singularly poignant event in which, the small-town mob having discovered an extramarital affair, take it upon themselves to dole out gang justice on the man who undertook said affair.

As the title would suggest, the other theme running through the novel is the collision of religion and science. Thomas was, indeed, the titular gardener, and though his wife has died, he still clings to the ideals science promotes, placing him in direct opposition to many of the people in the village. Though we don’t hear from Thomas often in this cacophony of narrators, his concerns for his children—as well as his consideration of the inherent tension between these two modes of thinking—mark him out as perhaps the most intelligent of those we meet.

Carlson’s novel never quite hits the heights of Fowles’ masterpiece. Ironically, perhaps, it never feels quite focused enough on any one character to leave any kind of lasting impression. While Peirene’s previous offering, The Mussel Feast, used its short length to its advantage, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, while being an impressive feat of style, perhaps overreaches itself in its attempt to satirise so many individuals in a short space.

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Another Country (2012) – Anjali JOSEPH

Moving away from China, and indeed, all of East Asia, I’m continuing my journey down the Man Asian Literary Prize. Anjali Joseph is from Bombay, though went to university in England. Unsurprisingly, then, her fiction deals with the migrant experience in England, exploring the ways in which identity is created by those around you, and by those who raised you.

Leela doesn’t know what to do with her life. Stuck teaching English in Paris, she sleeps with men, but doesn’t feel the need to go anything further. Finding her life in Paris unfulfilling, she returns to England, where she went to university, to see if she can reconnect with her friends, but there is nothing there for her. She decides to move to Bombay, where her parents live, to see if she can reconnect with her homeland. But  nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Why do we write fiction? To tell a rollicking good story? To tell people about history? Do we do it to explore the human condition? It’s probably a combination of all of these things—and more—but if Joseph is trying to tap in to any of these, she seems wildly off the mark. Certainly this is not what I would term an action-packed novel. Almost nothing of any consequence happens. And it’s not an historical novel, so we’re not looking at the ways in which history mirrors the present. So we’re left with the human condition.

If this is an exploration of the human condition, then it’s a damning indictment of young people today. Though her friends seem to be nice enough people, with stable jobs and stable relationships, Leela finds herself outside the mainstream, because she cannot deal with settling down in either a job or a relationship.

But this isn’t an angry novel. Joseph isn’t aggrieved at her fellow Gen Y kids—or if she is, she doesn’t show it in her writing. Leela is not portrayed as a figure to be pitied or one that should enrage us. Just like Leela, the writing seems apathetic. Joseph is concerned with the minutiae of Leela’s daily life, down to the conversations with her friends about what kind of drink they should get from the bar. We don’t get grand, sweeping statements, and though that’s not what I necessarily look for in a novel, some hints as to what the whole point is would have been nice.

In many ways, the three sections of the novel are informed by the three men Leela finds herself involved with: Simon in Paris; Richard, in London; and Vikram, in Bombay. Each one gets closer and closer to a real relationship, but each time, Leela pulls back at the last minute, unable to commit to any man, or indeed, any other person. She has trouble communicating with anyone in Paris, seems isolated and distant from her friends in England, and spends much of her time in Bombay ill.

Her relationship with Simon starts as something spontaneous and exciting, but all too soon, Leela finds herself wondering and stressing about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in a relationship that has never been defined. Certainly, a modern problem if ever there was one, and a situation that could easily be mined for dramatic fodder. But Joseph pulls back,

An unspecified time jump brings us to London, where Leela has taken up with a man named Richard, though at the beginning, Simon still seems to be in the picture. Richard, unlike Simon, seems to want a serious relationship, though Leela remains unconvinced, to the point where she breaks up with him late one night, unable to explain what it is that went wrong. Needless to say, Richard isn’t impressed with this, and though he tries to fix what is wrong, ultimately, she cannot explicate what it is that she doesn’t like.

We move time and space again, this time finding Leela in Bombay, doing some secretarial work for a small Indian company. In spite of living in an all-female dorm (once again finding herself unable to communicate with the people she lives with), she finds Vikram, and strikes up a relationship with him. It seems to be going well—Leela is introduced to his over-protective, horribly wealthy mother, who doesn’t seem to like Leela at all. In fact, it gets to the stage where they are engaged, but in the end, Leela breaks it off.

Despite her physical movement, Leela remains restless and isolated. In Paris, this can be attributed to her inability to speak French. She cannot talk to people on the street, leaving her with few friends and acquaintances she can call on in times of need. In London, she has been away long enough for her friends to have moved on from her, not in an unkind way, but enough time has passed that they simply find each other to be strangers. Questions of racial identity are brought up—something that we have certainly come to expect from authors that move around the globe like Joseph has done—and while any other author might explore the ways in which race disconnects us in the modern world, this doesn’t seem to be a factor in Leela’s listlessness. It’s decidedly odd. Like so many members of Gen Y, Leela’s formative years have been shaped by movement, and Joseph seems to be suggesting that it is this, not race, class or gender, that has created a generation of people who are more disconnected from one another than ever before. On a personal note, I would politely disagree with this sentiment.

Another Country is not a difficult book to read, but it’s also not really very interesting. I can deal with a book that has no plot, but to then not have much character development either? Leela doesn’t feel any different at the end as she did at the beginning. She hasn’t learned to work at a relationship, she hasn’t come to any great discovery about a modern global identity, she (if we’re going to go all retro about the role of women in fiction) hasn’t even met someone to settle down with. It doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything about how to live in the modern world, no matter where she finds herself.

It’s all deeply unsatisfying, really.

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Sour Sweet (1982) – Timothy MO

When Timothy Mo’s new book, Pure, came out last year, I was intrigued by its premise. Doing some more research on him, I discovered that he had actually been shortlisted for the Man Booker several times in the 80s, and yet none of his books are still available through a major publisher. All of his stuff is, however, available through his own publishing company, Paddleless Press. So when I found a few Vintage paperbacks of these novels at a recent second-hand book fair, I snapped them up.

The Chen family have just arrived in London. Eager to make a new life—and money—in their new homeland. Lily and Chen, along with their new son, Man Kee, and Lily’s older sister, Mui, live together. Though Chen works at an inner-city restaurant, he has bigger plans, and turns to an unfortunate source of income to make sure his dreams do come true.

I love this family. I love the husband and wife, I love the slightly clingy sister, I love the son with the big son. I love that they are comically dysfunctional, just like every other family in existence. I love that they are the ones who find the English confusing and ridiculous, with their crazy traditions like Christmas. I love that, at the heart of this novel, is an important story to be told, a story that chronicles the journey of first-generation Asian immigrants moving from the colonies to the motherland.

Their journey is, by now, familiar to us all – arguably more so to us Australians. We live in a country where the two largest countries of origin for immigrants are China and India. Asian faces are a part of the Australian experience. So it’s easy to read this book thirty years later and recognise the struggles of first-generation Asian immigrants in a predominately Anglo society.

It’s interesting to look at the way in which the immigrant and non-immigrant halves of London live in this context. When Lily finally sends her son to school, she is worried that he is spending too much time playing and having fun, and not learning things the proper, Chinese way. So she sends him to Chinese school on weekends, so he can have a proper, Chinese education. (This still happens today, of course. Many of my friends went to Chinese school on the weekend.)

Outside these obvious desires to see the next generation of Chinese grow up to have some grounding in Chinese traditions, Lily also finds other, non-Chinese, immigrant groups to be somehow intrinsically nicer than white English people. Perhaps she feels them all to be in the same boat, stuck in a country that is unfamiliar, yet unwilling to leave, because this is where they have chosen to make their new life.

The family is stubborn in its refusal to deal with people outside the family unit, though when they do, it is in exceptional circumstances. Chen, for example, seeks out the Triad for money to buy a house and restaurant so his family can escape the city, while the sisters seek out a friend, Mrs Law, when they need female advice. This relationship becomes particularly important about halfway through the novel when it turns out Mui is pregnant with an illegitimate child that needs to be taken care of. Though we never find out who the father is, I wonder if it is Chen—the two have secret conversations that Lily finds worrying, and are quiet whenever she is around. Or, I’m reading way too much into it.

One of the strengths of this novel is its tone. Mo keeps it fairly light and comical, despite the serious nature of the issues he tackles.  The tension between the husband and wife becomes a comical war of attrition with each side trying to outsmart the other without it being obvious. Ironically, of course, both end up getting what they want, but it takes the wife doing everything she can for this to happen. The tension, too, between the two sisters is deftly turned into a black comedy.

Perhaps the largest comedy fodder, though, is situational. Scenes of the husband learning to drive and failing miserably are hilarious, and the fact that the wife becomes even more adept at driving than he could ever imagine is even funnier, particularly considering the kinds of racial and gender stereotypes to which Asian lady drivers are subject. Funny, too, is the whole political structure of the Chinese restaurant in which Chen first works. The waiters know that the English are more likely to tip, but they can’t believe the kind of food they have to serve to them: sweet and sour pork, chicken with cashews—these are not foods that find themselves on everyday Chinese tables.

This is not to say, though, that Mo reaches for Jacobson style farcical comedy. There are moments of genuine heartbreak, especially when the Triad finally catches up with the husband, culminating in a surprisingly down-beat, and understated finale, in which Lily and Mui never actually find out what happened to their husband/brother-in-law.

I wonder whether excising a large portion of the Triad plotline would make the novel a lot better. Mo breaks up his solid story of a family immigrating to England from Hong Kong with occasional vignettes into Triad meetings where upper-level gangsters talk about the cocaine trade into England from all over the world, and while these things are interesting, they take away somewhat from the main tale Mo is trying to tell. I get that, structurally, he needs to introduce the Triads so he can get his pay-off at the end, but it takes focus away from the main narrative thread, not just in terms of content, but in tone, too.

On a purely personal note, too, Mo refers to the members of the Triad by using the meanings of the characters in which their Chinese names are written, something that has always bugged me. We don’t call Tokyo “Eastern Capital”, or Beijing “Northern Capital”—it sounds dumb. Who knows, maybe it was the way to do it at the time.

Sour Sweet is not a spectacular book, but it is certainly not a bad one. If nothing else, it fills a gap in the British immigrant experience, which so often explores other groups, including those from the subcontinent and from Africa. But it fill it admirably, pulling back from the po-faced, serious semi-autobiographical retellings of immigrant experiences. This does not undermine the serious issues faced by Hong Kongers coming to England, but it places the often comic misunderstandings between two cultures at the forefront.

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NW (2012) – Zadie SMITH

It’s been a long time between novels for Zadie Smith – her last, On Beauty, was published in 2005. In her defence, she has been busy having a real life, getting married and having a baby. NW is a return to Smith’s own childhood neighbourhood – the north-west of London (hence the title). It is her shortest work yet, though is perhaps her most experimental work, particularly in terms of formal structure if not in thematic concern.

Leah has been friends with Keisha ever since Keisha saved Leah from drowning at the age of four. As with all childhood friendships, the two have grown apart as they grow up, go to university, get jobs and find partners. But Leah still lives on the council estate they grew up on, while Keisha moved away, changed her name to Natalie, and has become a successful lawyer. When Leah has an uncomfortable encounter with a girl on the estate, the two women find themselves once again drawn into each other’s lives.

I’ve never been to London, let alone north-west London, so I can claim no expertise on whether or not Smith has accurately evoked the neighbourhoods of Willesden. Besides, specific urban geography does not worry me. What does interest me is the concept of these London council estates, in which a true melting pot of disparate groups find themselves shoulder to shoulder, denied access to the mainstream. It becomes something of a petri dish, then, particularly for the authors who portray them, allowing them almost unlimited scope in their quest to explore the three backbones of lit crit – race, class and gender.

The first section, Leah’s story, focuses on gender. Interestingly, just as the recent debate in the US and around the world in regards to women’s rights has been closely linked to questions of control over the reproductive cycle, so too does Smith equate a kind of feminism with contraception. Though Michel is desperate to start a family, Leah is unsure and so, in secret, continues to take the pill in order to prevent her getting pregnant. It is interesting to chart the difference between the genders here – though Leah does not want She finds herself unable to communicate to Michel why it is exactly that she does not want a child. As the section moves to the end, we discover that, in fact, Leah is not even attracted to men.

Threaded through Leah’s life are questions of race. She works as a social worker, having been to university and studied. But she works with women who didn’t have that chance, and as the only white woman in the office, she finds herself the target of what are not doubt intended to be jokey cracks about her perfect life. There is a sense, though, that these are not just jokes – these black women are framing their very real jealousies with humour to make them seem less petty, less cruel. Nevertheless, there is a cruel streak in their taunting, and for Leah, who already seems to be highly strung, her workplace becomes a place of stress.

Moving to the second section, Smith turns her gaze on to questions of race. Felix is a recovering addict, and wants to buy a car. And so we follow him in this seemingly simple endeavour – he has found someone willing to sell him the model and make he wants, so he can fix it up. He meets this posh white university student, and a comedy of errors ensues. But what’s the term when a comedy of errors simply becomes errors? Felix decides to see his ex-girlfriend (and the father of his children), in the hope that she, too, has cleaned up her act. Sadly – for him and for us – she has not. Smith paints this junkie as a figure of pity, but also as one not deserving of our respect. We like Felix – I think he is probably the most likeable of the four main characters – and so we don’t like her. Her inability to see what she is doing to herself, and to the people around her, upsets Felix, who has managed to find a way out of the quagmire that is
a life of drug-taking.

We are taken then to Natalie, whose story is told in fragments – tiny chapters, most no longer than a few paragraphs. This is the kind of writing I can get behind, and certainly the one to which I reacted most positively. Just as I loved it in Chinaman, this fragmentary style allows witty, as well as emotional, asides to act as a counterpoint to the main melody of the narrative that is Natalie escaping the shackles of her class upbringing. It is this drift – away from the council estate of predominantly non-white poor people, towards the moneyed white upper-classes – that provides the most friction between the two women. Though she has moved off the estate, and is now comfortably middle-class, Natalie still wants to be seen as a, if you’ll forgive the cliché, a strong independent black woman. In a world of milk-white skin, she provides local colour, and is often used for political gains by people around her. The question of her taking silk, for example, rapidly becomes a question of whether the bar is ready for a non-white, non-male silk – it becomes less about her abilities as a lawyer, and more about her race, gender, and to a certain extent, class. She has the perfect middle-class family, a husband, a son and daughter, but there does seem to be something missing. One cannot help but wonder if there’s anything to be made of the fact that both of the women here view motherhood with suspicion. Leah is so desperate to avoid getting pregnant in the first place, and for a long time, Natalie cannot deal with her children, relinquishing control to a parade of nannies.

I mentioned a little while ago that I appreciated the use of technology in Michelle de Kretser’s new novel, because I don’t think authors explore it the kind of seriousness it deserves. But it comes up again here, as Natalie, in an attempt to escape the inanity of her life, finds solace on the internet. It is perhaps the only part of the novel that veers away from the hyper-realist tone set up by Smith. Natalie doesn’t only find solace on the internet; she finds solace in late-night hook-ups with strangers from the internet, a past-time that comes to a head when she offers herself as the token woman in a threesome with two much, much younger men. It it, to say the least, a strange scene, but it does set up the final sequence.

The blurb of NW, as well as many of the reviews, make reference to the novel following four characters. I have only mentioned three so far. The last, Nathan Bogle, remains little more than a ghostly figure for most of the novel – much referenced and discussed, but little seen outside of a few mentions of him smoking pot and getting high. His is the last section, and for me to say much about it would be to ruin much of the ostensible plot of the novel, so I’ll try to keep it brief. He and Natalie find each other, and in a gorgeous evocation of north-west London, find themselves wandering around their old haunts. This is their land, and they know it well. No one can take that away from them.

It would have been easy for Zadie Smith to write another thick, hysterical realist novel and for us to all be happy with it. But experimentation with form and theme is the sign of a great writer. Smith’s dip into modernism is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. It allows her to explore her pet themes – the collision of race, class and gender in a very specific part of contemporary London. Hopefully this is the beginning of a beautiful new phase of her career.

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The Finkler Question (2010) – Howard JACOBSON

Now that Howard Jacobson’s new novel, Zoo Time, is out, I thought I might finally get around to reading his last novel which, some may remember, won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. I have vague memories that people were impressed and excited that a comic novel had won, which is certainly a rarity in the Booker world. Recent winners like The Inheritance, The Sea and The Sense of an Ending don’t exactly scream hilarious. And then Howard Jacobson was on Q&A and he was great and I wanted him to be there every week. So I’m finally here, reading Finkler.

Walking home through London after dinner one night, Julian Treslove is mugged. By a woman. Shaken and confused, the thing he remembers most about the attack is that the woman said something. Something that sounded like “Because you’re a Jew.” Confused as to why anyone would think him Jewish, he begins a journey through the Jewish tradition, led by his friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. Enthralled by what he finds, Treslove moves in with a Jewish woman and tries to be Jewish. Hilarity ensues.

When I read Philip Roth, I remarked that one of the defining features of his writing was its Jewishness. Certainly Jacobson is continuing this tradition, but it’s safe to say he goes about it in a completely different way. Ok, it’s obviously not laugh out loud hilarious. But the ostensibly light tone, along with all the ridiculous things that happen to Treslove, and all the word-play going on, make this a fun novel to read, despite the serious questions it asks of us. Maybe it’s more absurd than comic. In any case, Jacobson gives us three models from which we can choose – the Gentile who wants to be a Jew, the Jew who doesn’t want to be a Jew, and the old man who wants to die.

It’s hard to like Julian Treslove. His obsession with wanting to be Jewish borders on the racist – the idea that being Jewish is intrinsically better because of all the culture and history. His stereotypical image of the perfect Jew is so completely ignorant it borders on the naive. I love the irony of him now wanting to upset anyone, referring to Jews as Finklers in his internal monologue. He – and I say this as a young white atheist – completely misses the point of the history of suffering of the Jewish people, thinking he can somehow latch on to that and create a new identity. He just wants to be one of the cool kids – it just happens that, in this case, all the cool kids are Jewish. He thinks learning some token Yiddish will somehow make him more Jewish – it’s as though all he wants to do is learn the theory and study for the test, and not actually live as a Jew.

In the other corner is Sam Finkler, Treslove’s more attractive, more successful high school friend, whose wife has just died. Finkler is an “ASHamed” Jew. Finkler finds Israeli politics abominable, and with a group of other prominent Jews, makes sure the rest of the world knows just how ashamed he is to be associated with Israel, simply by being Jewish. Does this make him anti-Semitic? Certainly a lot of people think so, including members of his own family. For a man who has never been particularly concerned with leading a proper Jewish lifestyle, his attacks on Israeli policy certainly seem mistimed and inappropriate.

Of the three men at the centre of the plot, it is hands-down Libor that comes off most sympathetic. While the two younger men are caught up in their own ridiculous problems, Libor is left to play the grieving widower, coming to terms with the fact that his wife of more than sixty years is no longer with him. Though his narrative strand is shorter and smaller, it’s nice that Jacobson contrasts these self-absorbed, self-obsessed younger men with

Has Jacobson ever given a definitive answer as to what the eponymous Finkler question is? Maybe he just thought calling a book “The Jewish Question” might not go down so well. But there is one question with which he seems more concerned than any other: what does it mean to be Jewish? That overarching question seems to be more of a quest than a question – the quest for an “authentic” Jewish identity, with a proscribed set of rules and regulations that can be followed, and if you follow them properly, you become Jewish. But the only one of our suggested models that is even sympathetic is Libor, and even he doesn’t want to be defined by his Jewishness. Does Jacobson see the old guard as the way forward? Does he despair of the new generation of Jewish intellectuals and critics?

So maybe that’s the answer to the question. You can’t become Jewish, but it doesn’t matter. You can be born Jewish, but it doesn’t matter. As with Christianity, as with Islam, as with Buddhism, there is no one right answer. A plurality of voices exists even in a minority community, and we shouldn’t be surprised that the collision of politics, religion and identity creates more viewpoints than it breaks down.

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The Casual Vacancy (2012) – JK ROWLING

There’s no question that The Casual Vacancy will be the most talked about book of 2012. JK Rowling’s first foray into writing for an adult audience, we’ve now known about the existence of this book for years. And the fact that almost no one was allowed to get their hands on a review copy, combined with an international embargo, meant that excitement and anticipation for it was whipped up into a form that caused several members of the public to swear at me when I refused to sell it to them before the embargo. So is it worth the wait?

When Barry Fairbrother, a likeable member of the local council, dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm, the small town of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. Without the seemingly irreplaceable Barry, the town begins to turn on itself, pitting resident against resident as an historically divisive issue rears its ugly head. As secrets come out and lives irrevocably changed in the superficially peaceful town, events are also forcing change in the neighbouring council estate housing. Nothing will ever be the same again.

A word of warning – if you don’t like books with unlikeable characters, this is not the novel for you. Just as Tsiolkas’ The Slap exaggerated unappealing characters to prove a point about contemporary Australian society, so too does Rowling populate Pagford with people I hope I never meet. Howard, the ostensible mayor of Pagford, treats his daughter-in-law like a piece of meat, despite having a wife watching him. Gavin, Barry’s best friend, has been stringing along a social worked from London who has moved to London with her sixteen-year-old daughter just to be closer to him. Krystal, the local wild girl, has a heroin addict for a mother and a violent temper that has resulted in several lost teeth at school.

I assume everyone who’s read the book has an opinion about who is the worst character in the novel, but there was no contest for me, and I will fight you all if you disagree. I’m not sure I can recall a time when I’ve felt more anger towards a fictional character than when I was reading any passage containing Simon Price, father to Andrew ‘Arf’ Price, ,husband to Ruth. This is a man who torments his youngest son Paul by constantly referring to him as ‘Pauline'; who calls his son a “fucking little shit” on too many occasions to count; who beats his entire family when it is discovered that their new computer is stolen. Paul is on the receiving end of these attacks so often, he develops nosebleeds on the way to school because he is so stressed.

It is unsurprising, then, that Andrew should be the one to initiate the Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother handle that begins to haunt the worryingly poorly secured website of the local council. So outraged that his father would consider standing for local government – and worried that his father’s crazy would become public knowledge – Andrew takes to hacking the website to anonymously vent his rage. Once this enters into the public consciousness, two other teenagers take up the technology with which they are frighteningly familiar, and do the same to their own parents. The trick gets a little old third time around, but the effects remain as devastating as the first time. In fact, the role of “cyberbullying” (a phrase I desperately hate) is examined quite closely here, perhaps highlighting the seemingly never-ending cycle of bullying humanity at which humanity seems so well-versed taking on a new and worrying form. One of the few people in the novel who seems designed to elicit sympathy is Sukhvinder, a young Sikh girl who is bullied mercilessly for her physical appearance, driving her to self-harm. Her mother and father seem blissfully unaware of this, worrying more about their older children getting into university. Her antagonising bully is Fats, the son of Colin Wall, the deputy headmaster, who was good friends with Barry. Fats, incidentally, was one of the many characters in the novel I was on the verge of liking, but then goes and ruins it all by being a complete and utter dick to Sukhvinder over Facebook, and indeed, in real life.

Like all good British novels, class is central to the way in which characters act and react to the events around them. We have to turn to the daughter of a heroin addict for any glimmer of hope in this quagmire of petty and parochial infighting that seems to plague the middle- and upper-class residents of the town. In an interview with Jennifer Byrne last week, Rowling mentioned that a potential title for the novel had been What Do We Do About Krystal? And, of course, this is the moral quandary central to the novel: how do we, as middle- and upper-class people, deal with drug-addicts who have fallen into a hole of substandard living conditions and welfare dependency, particularly when they live next door to us? Most of the people in Rowling’s book simply want to brush the problem away – out of sight, out of mind. Rowling does not offer any concrete suggestions for improvement – and I don’t think anyone should expect an author to come up with a problem to a deeply intractable social issue – other than to ask us for more sympathy, more time to properly understand the underlying issues surrounding these people and their lifestyle.

The novel is not perfect. As with all books over about 300 pages, I think it drags a little, and could do with a little pruning. Having said that, the cast of characters is huge – almost too huge – so without cutting out some of the subplots, I’m not sure what she could do to resolve the problem. The pacing, too, seems a little off. Something like a hundred pages are dedicated to going through the town, examining the reactions of each and every member of the cast. And then the election itself turns out to not be the climax of the novel at all, coming before the third act even begins. Then there’s an exceptionally odd town council meeting which probably could have been the end, but isn’t – by a long shot. And then there’s the end, which actually is quite touching, though I should warn you, in no way optimistic.

It’s been hard to find a review of this novel that doesn’t mention Harry Potter. I’ve tried to redress this problem, but there are one or two points I want to make about it before I finish. Many reviewers seem shocked that Rowling has written a novel that isn’t anything at all like HarryThe Casual Vacancy has sex, a lot of swearing, and a whole load of drug taking. But all of this is superficial. Thematically, it seems like the logical next step for Rowling. Her primary concern in both works is mortality, and she has admitted as much in interviews. I don’t know why people are that surprised at The Casual Vacancy – there were hints of wider concerns about closed-mindedness and parochialism in Potter. All one has to do is read Chapter Two of Philosopher’s Stone to see the Dursley’s lock their nephew in a broom cupboard for fear of his ‘difference’ being discovered by their neighbours. I mean, that’s pretty heavy stuff, even for a kid’s book. No longer shackled by a huge child-oriented audience, it feels like Rowling is letting loose with ideas that have been bubbling below the surface for a long time.

The Casual Vacancy is a blistering and angry attack on the parochial and superficial mindset that seems to infect middle England. It is a confronting novel, and often makes for unpleasant reading. In many ways, though, this is the strength of the novel – slapping its readers in the face with social realism can only make us questions our own views, and start a wider conversation about the kind of society in which we want to live.

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The Collector (1963) – John FOWLES

The French Lieutenant’s Woman was one of my HSC texts – all those years ago – and though I enjoyed it, I have not gone back to Fowles since. Fun fact for the day – Fowles died four days after my last high school exam (It wasn’t English. It was Ancient History.) But look! Vintage Classics have reissued his list in pretty covers! And they’re so cheap! How can I say no?! And how can I stop using exclamation marks?!

When Frederick Clegg decides to kidnap the girl of his dreams, Miranda Grey, neither of them knows what the end game is. As Miranda tries to come to grips with her new way of life, having been stolen by a man she barely knows, Frederick, too, is having to struggle with some important life questions. Now that he has her, what will he do with her? What does he want out of this? What does she need? And will he ever let her go?

We rattle along the first twenty pages or so, patiently waiting for Frederick to do something of any interest. He seems to be a perfectly gentle young man, if a little odd. It’s amazing just how easily this is conveyed by Fowles by internal monologue alone. It’s not the situations in which he finds himself, but the tone and vocabulary of his monologue are calm and somehow detached from the rest of the world. It is clear he doesn’t fit in, but there’s no real sense of what he is about to do. There are about a billion young men like him lusting after a girl far, far out of their reach.

So when the deed does indeed occur, it is something of a shock. Once again, the matter of fact tone of his retelling of his kidnapping of Miranda is laid out like a recipe. Or perhaps more aptly, recalling a surgery. In many ways, it is his refusal to acknowledge the possible consequences of his actions that make him so weird. I didn’t find him terrifying – this isn’t some Scandinavian slasher novel. So no, not terrifying. But creepy? Yes. Unnerving? Yes. Do I want to share a beer with him? Nope. But he is fascinating, and you can’t help but feel unclean at the fact that you want to find out more about him.

The shift into Miranda’s point of view is, therefore, a pleasant change. She is very, very human, and in many ways, kind of an annoying toff. She is completely oblivious to this fact, though, and she does mean well. That, and she’s been kidnapped by a crazy man, so you can forgive a young lady a few foibles. They’re not even bad faults – she wants everyone to be better. As an art student, she is caught up in the 1960s art scene, when theory and practice were rapidly changing, and people were asking more questions about their paintings. Miranda, so caught up in this, cannot see that other people might not have any interest or desire in the minutiae of this world, and she just wants everyone to be a bit nicer, a bit more educated, a bit better.

Sexuality is at the heart of this novel. We all know people like Frederick, and it’s not entirely surprising to find out that he has absolutely no idea what to do with Miranda once he has her. We never really discover what it is about him that has made him quite so repressed. I suppose, in a way, it’s gentlemanly not to rape the girl you’ve kidnapped? I’m not really sure. Miranda herself veers wildly between making her own advances, in an attempt to try and bribe her way out of the situation, and being repulsed at the thought of bedding him.

Her running hot and cold with him sexually is almost directly related to her own feelings about her predicament. She is, at first, and quite understandably, angry, scared and petrified. She tries to escape, but with inevitable failure, she becomes resigned to her fate, and is willing to play the model prisoner for a while. Inevitably, this never lasts, and she tries again and again to escape, the cycle of anger, horror and sympathy for Frederick doomed to repeat itself ad infinitum. There are echoes of Stockholm Syndrome, but Miranda sees Frederick more of a kind of project, a puzzle to work out and solve, rather than a man she would like to date.

Miranda’s fate seems inevitable when you read it, but for a long time, I was hoping she would get out of her imprisonment unscathed. Alas, it was not to be. What is more terrifying, though, is what Frederick decides to do next. I won’t spoil it for you, but it really drives home his mental instability.

The Collector betrays only a few hints of the intellectually heavy work for which Fowles would later become famous. It is, however, a deeply unnerving book that explores a short, intense relationship that inadvertently bares naked two people to each other, and allows us inside.

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