Tag Archives: America

Booker Prize 2015: American Families

I’ve already done one post about families, but it really is such an important part of fiction that I find myself here again. This time, though, I’m going by culture: this is all about the modern American family and how two very different authors view these relationships.

Bill Clegg has a history as a literary agent, but Did you ever have a family is his first attempt at writing fiction. Set in a small town, it looks at how one event changes the lives not just of one family, but several.

The characters themselves weave a tangled web: Lolly and Will are about to be married, when the house in which they are staying in their hometown goes up in smoke. Racked by guilt and depression, Lolly’s mother June is also mourning the loss of her partner, Luke, who is being blamed for the blaze. Meanwhile, Luke’s mother Lydia is also coming to terms with the loss of her son, while also being stalked by Silas, the teenager who was first on the scene of the house.

It’s a dense set of relationships to get your head around—particularly in such a short book—and it takes some time for them to all come into focus. The novel shifts around fairly quickly, moving not only from character to character, but also to past and present, and sometimes future. Slowly, as these people resolve into something more than shapes in fog, we see the full tragedy.

These people were already broken: June’s relationship with her daughter was fraught ever since she found love with Luke, a man the same age as Lolly, and a former convict. Luke, meanwhile, had finally found meaning in his life after being cut free by Lydia, a single mother left with a son that no one wanted, who was trying to find a sense of belonging in her own life. The cruel irony of this novel is that just as these people have found each other to begin the process of creating a new family, their lives are ripped apart, and once more scattered to the winds.

The twist, such as it is, is literally signposted from the first page, so if you’re expecting huge revelations at the end of this experience, prepare to be disappointed. Perhaps like so many things in our lives, there is no meaning behind such seismic events—just a mistake made by a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Clegg doesn’t seem to be interested in shocking or aweing us into submission: Did you ever have a family is a surprisingly small-scale story that, while anything by optimistic throughout, does seem to end on a hopeful note, that people can actually get past, or at least come to terms with, horrific events.

A spool of blue thread, by Anne Tyler, is an altogether lighter affair. Though she’s been around forever, I’ve never read any of Tyler’s other works, but it certainly seems that this one is emblematic of her wider oeuvre, tending towards the cute and the cosy as opposed to anything too heavy.

The question, then, is whether this approach works. Clearly some of this will be down to personal preference, but if, as an author, you are keeping things light, you have to be very good to prosecute cases about relationships—and humanity—without it seeming cloying or twee.

For the most part, Tyler pulls this off, and her soft tale of the Whitshank family is certainly engaging. Even though she does deal with some pretty heavy topics—including accidental kidnapping and parental death—at no stage are you overwhelmed by the weight of these themes that, in the hands of others, could be too much.

The Whitshank family is well drawn: the father, Red, is a typical old man, hard of hearing, and good with his hands. His wife, Abby, is a recovering 1960s hippie, still prone to random acts of kindness towards strangers, and still slightly overbearing in the eyes of her children. Those children (Denny, Mandy, Jeannie and Stem) have grown up, and while three of them are biologically Whitshanks, the last—Stem—is the result of what can legally be described as an accidental kidnapping. It’s a weird moment, but Tyler uses it to remind us that family is not just those people who are born to and around us, but the people who choose to live with and call our own.

The limitations of this style are perhaps most keenly felt in this relationship between Denny and Stem. The two have an uneasy relationship: as a child, Denny resented Stem for coming into their house and instantly becoming their father’s favourite. Whether directly because of this or not, Denny’s life has been fractured and unsettled, much to the dismay of the rest of the Whitshank family, who all have stable families and careers. This all comes to a head when Denny and Stem start physically fighting, but this tends to get lost in a novel that, in some ways, shies away from really getting into the heads of these two men.

Though the novel does go back through time to explain both Abby and Red’s courtship, as well as Red’s parents, these two stories are not as interesting as the dynamics of the present day family—except for the small matter of Red’s mother being about 15 years younger than his father, which was a problem when they met when she was 14. These pieces of family hagiography are nice, but don’t add that much to the central plot.

There’s room in the world, I think, for this kind of relaxed novel. I don’t think we all want to read A little life every time we crack open a book. The danger, though, of novel like A spool of blue thread is that they become so calm as to be unforgettable. And while this was a pleasant and engaging way to spend a few days, it’s safe to say I won’t be thinking about the Whitshanks into the future.

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Booker Prize 2015: New Histories

The historical novel has always done well in the Booker. The last three winners (The narrow road to the deep north, The luminaries, Bring up the bodies) have all explored history in surprising ways. The two novels here both take a lesser known part of history as their starting point for stories that try to fill the gaps in our knowledge about what happened before us.

Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-American author, takes an historical document as her starting point. In 1527, the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez and a crew of 600 men sailed from Spain to the Gulf Coast of the United States to claim “La Florida” for the Spanish crown. While the mission was a complete failure, four men survived, one of whom was an unnamed Moorish slave. When the official histories came out, he was whitewashed out of them. In The moor’s account, Lalami imagines his story.

There’s such scope here to really examine two linked concepts—the colonisation of an entire continent by Europeans juxtaposed with man who has been on the receiving end of that colonisation—and Lalami makes an attempt to explore both. Thought the main narrative of the novel concerns itself with this horrifically failed mission in Florida, the first half is also interspersed with flashbacks to Estebanico’s life before he became a slave. What is interesting about this history is that Estebanico chose to become a slave—he sold himself into the trade to give his family the money to survive after his own businesses . In some ways, then, he is not a typical slave—he is not the result of a conquest, but of a failure of the colonial system to provide for its subjects.

Perhaps this, then, is why he cannot seem to see that the mission he is on is not only doomed, but morally questionable. His entire account is so dry, so lacking in emotion, that it feels like we are reading a history as opposed to a diary. I’m not sure this is a deliberate choice on Lalami’s part, but it does distance the reader from the story, and results in a failure to make you care about what is happening both to Estebanico and his fellow travellers. Instead of making the history come alive, it is reduced to a series of events—some things happen to these people, but there doesn’t seem to be any emotional investment in what happens to them.

Marlon James, too, takes an obscure piece of history—the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston in 1976—to begin his novel. But while The moor’s account becomes dry and stale, A brief history of seven killings brings to life a world full of colour, passion, drugs and death.

The first thing to note is that this schizophrenic novel is long. With a cast of hundreds, James takes us through the lead up to the event, as well as the ripple effect of it, with a chorus of voices that weave in and out of the narrative, sometimes for decades, and others for just a day. Despite this, each and every voice has its own strength, and it’s easy to pick up the threads, even if you are coming back to a perspective after several hundred pages.

The greatest strength of the novel is the first 250 pages, which tell with impressive detail the story not only of the people who decide to kill the Singer, as he is known here, but the people around them trying to make sense of Jamaica in the 1970s. There are the two warring gangs, Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes, who are terrorising the streets, and finding themselves more and more involved with politics. There’s Nina, out of a job and obsessed with the Singer. Alex Pierce, Rolling Stone journalist trying to file the greatest story on the Singer anyone has ever read. As each of them circle closer towards the big day, James show us a huge cross-section of people who call Jamaica home, and what this place is like as the Cold War rages on around them, and as Jamaica is pulling itself towards something resembling democracy.

Once the assassination attempt happens, though, these players scatter around the country and the continent, living their lives and moving on. Alex Pierce, the journalist, cannot help but continue investigating the story: who were the people who tried to kill the Singer? As he does, though, he finds himself drawn into a world he cannot handle.

It is here that Josey Wales, the deputy of Copenhagen City, comes into focus. This second half is really his story, as he becomes leader of the Storm Posse, an international drug trafficking organisation that goes between Jamaica and New York, cutting down all those who dare to get in its way. This gang becomes slowly more intertwined with both the characters from before the event, and Jamaica itself, as it tries to find a way beyond the gang violence and drug trade that defined it in the past. The big question, though, is whether this is possible when the relationship between the politicians and the gangs is so close.

A story so rooted in place could not be told in standard English. From Nina’s attempts to sound more posh to Josey’s refusal to speak anything other than Jamaican English, via a frighteningly large vocabulary of uniquely Jamaican expletives, James experiments with English in a way that no other novel on the shortlist does. This experimentation adds another layer of authenticity, and reminds the reader that, though this is history, it is a history that was experienced, and is still alive.

There’s no doubt that A brief history of seven killings is an impressive piece of work. It’s probably a little too long for its own good, and while the latter 350 pages don’t quite live up to the blisteringly good first 250, it is nevertheless a painfully intense novel that examines the people on the periphery, those who are caught up in a pivotal moment, and how their lives are shaped by it. It’s not perfect, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good.

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Booker Prize 2015: Troubled Childhoods

For those who read this blog that are not Australian, a bit of context: we are in the midst of a Royal Commission exploring institutional responses to child abuse throughout the past century in Australia. And what is most shocking about this Commission is that this abuse was systematic and widespread—so many stories are of children being abused by adults in positions of power, and no one doing anything about it. Both novels here ask the next logical question: what next?

Perhaps the most damning answer to this is in Hanya Yanagihara’s A little life. Ostensibly about four young friends in New York, this novel morphs into a blisteringly intense look at the way in which the mind reforms itself in response to sustained, abuse relationships as a child.

It is in the main character, Jude, that Yanagihara focuses all these abuses—in many ways, it seems unreal that a child found in a dumpster could be rescued by a religious cult of faux-priests, only to escape with one who shows him kindness, only to be sold into prostitution—and then after his escape, rescued by a sadistic doctor who refuses to let him into the world. It is simultaneously the most horrific and most compelling narrative in the entire longlist.

Without wanting to be too blunt, this really fucks Jude up. Sixteen years of abuse makes it literally impossible for him to trust anyone, despite (eventually) being surrounded by a whole network of people who love and care for him. This irony is made all the more stark as Jude, throughout his charmed life, finds himself ridiculously wealthy and materially successful. The question, then, is whether someone like Jude can escape his own past.

Yanagihara seems to think not. Despite these (sometimes enabling) networks, Jude continues to resort to cutting himself to release himself from the physical and emotional pain he still carries from his childhood. Rather than speaking to anyone, he literally tells no one about what happened to him for almost forty years, somewhat ironically increasing the distance between himself and those who care for him. For Jude, any mention of this time is an complete reminder of his own inability to control it, and in his mind, the physical scars he carries with him are disgusting signs that make him unlovable.

Allowing Jude (almost) all the privileges that anyone could possibly have someone (white, upper-class, wealthy), as well as removing any references that would ground the story in one particular time, Yanagihara highlights the fact that the repercussions of a childhood of abuse will be felt throughout a life, for the entirety of the life. And, in fact, those repercussions might even be responsible for the end of a life.

Despite being 700 pages long, A little life is hard to stop. Containing some of the most graphic and horrifyingly detailed passages of self-harm I have ever read, this novel is a beautiful reminder of both the greatest love and the most horrifying evil humans are capable of.

If A little life is a big, brash, bombastic novel, then Lila is a much more subtle, refined thing, though no less concerned with exploring the ways in which a troubled childhood can continue to affect adults long after the fact. Though Lila is ostensibly the third novel in Robinson’s Gilead sequence, I was blissfully unaware of this fact as I read it, and didn’t feel like I was missing any vital information. Further reading suggests that this was the case for others, and rather than acting as a sequel, is something of a side-quel to both Gilead and Homecoming.

At a very young age, Lila is taken (or rescued, depending on your point of view) from outside a house by a woman named Doll. Together, they walk across the state, trying to eke out a living doing odd jobs and itinerant work. Eventually, though, Lila grows up and marries a preacher man. All of a sudden, she finds herself settled—and pregnant—with the Reverend John Ames, an elderly priest making a living in the small town of Gilead, forcing her to question whether or not this is really the life she wants.

Lila is not stupid, but she is uneducated: her life up until this point has been transient: Doll has dragged her around the state doing odd jobs, pushing her in—and then pulling her out of—schools, meaning that though she has basic reading and writing skills, she has never taken the time to sit down and contemplate her place in life. Lila has become hypersensitive to being both criticised and patronised. While her husband does all he can to make her feel comfortable, as well as give her space both physically and emotionally to grow, she bristles at every perceived slight. For the longest time, she cannot bear to discuss her thoughts about her readings—having become recently acquainted with the Bible—with him, for fear of being seen as stupid or ignorant.

Here lies the central conundrum for Lila. Having found herself in a comfortable position, with a man willing to give her the space she needs, she suddenly doesn’t know if this is really what she wants. Does she want to settle down as wife and mother? Or does she simply not have the ability to live like that? Has her upbringing so affected her life?

But maybe this is what Robinson wants us to consider. Both Lila and John find it hard to understand the other. They can make a life—and a baby—together, but the other partner in the marriage is unknowable to both. Lila cannot understand why John wants her, particularly since she has made it clear she may not stay. John, though, cannot understand Lila, a woman who has spent most of her life on the road, drifting. And yet, somehow they make it work, bringing a young boy into the world, and giving him a life neither of them could have ever had.

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Plainsong (1999) – Kent HARUF

Death is a funny thing. I started writing this review a few weeks ago, and at that time, Kent Haruf was still alive. As I write this now, though, the great man has passed away, leaving behind five (soon to be six) novels. To celebrate his life and work, I’m going to spend the next three weeks talking about the most well-known of his Holt novels: Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction.

Haruf shot to fame (well, as much as he ever would) with this novel, his third. Set in Holt, the fictional town where all his novels are set, it tells of the coming together of the McPheron brothers, renowned bachelors living together on their farm just out of the town borders, and Victoria Roubideaux, a teenager who finds herself pregnant, and without a home. Plainsong is simply the story of how they learn to live together.

Much like his characters, Kent Haruf is not interested in romantic evocations of the landscape in which he finds himself. His language is short, plain, but laser-sharp. There are no wasted words in any sentence, and yet the town of Holt is brought vivdly to life; not through its landscape, but through an entirely believable cast of characters is brought to life. In fact, it is not until the closing paragraphs that Haruf allows himself a moment of release, leaving us with a lingering image of the setting.

Perhaps this is on purpose—there’s a timelessness to the novel that makes it hard to pin down exactly when it’s set. Though it was published in 1999, there’s no suggestion of any kind of twentieth-century convenience available to these characters: it could as easily be set in the 1950s as the 1990s.

At the centre of this novel is a three-person relationship: Victoria, Harold and Raymond. Brought together almost by happenstance, these three people who have learned to live a silent life suddenly find themselves in a situation where they must communicate with others. For Harold and Raymond, this breaks down decades of barriers between not only themselves and the rest of the world, but between the two brothers themselves. Despite having lived together all their lives, you get the feeling they’re not big on sharing. So to find themselves suddenly having to look after a pregnant teenager is something of a shock.

Victoria, too, must learn to place trust in others. Her mother is no use, having kicked her out once she discovered the baby, and she refuses to tell anyone the identity of the baby’s father, figuring it to be easier simply not to open that conversation. And yet, in a moment of weakness, she does run away with the boy in question, perhaps to try to make the perfect life she was never afforded by having a single mother. It’s perfectly understandable, but at the same, as you see it happening, you just want to reach in and tell her what a bad idea it is.

Though his characters make mistakes, they do not seem to suffer the ultimate character flaw—being blissfully ignorant of what’s going on around them. So many characters seem to, for narrative reasons, ignore the bleeding obvious, even though any regular person would see it. Haruf is so much of a realist he won’t even bend to these writer’s rules simply for the sake of drama. His characters might be flawed, and do dumb things, but they seem to be aware of them, and want to make themselves better people. It’s something we all strive to do, even if it makes out lives less melodramatic.

Plainsong is not a novel about big ideas. It’s not got an Important Message it wants to tell you. It is the story of decent people doing decent things. And in a world like ours, perhaps that’s what we all need.

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Sworn Virgin (2007) – Elvira DONES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Other Shore (2014) – Hoa PHAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Silence Once Begun (2014) – Jesse BALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Son (2014) – Philipp MEYER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Flamethrowers (2013) – Rachel KUSHNER

As I continue my (very selective) quest to check out this year’s Folio Prize shortlist, I find myself up against a wall of Yanks. The Flamethrowers is one of five American books on the eight-strong shortlist—hopefully not a sign of what is to come in this year’s Booker). In any case, I opened it hoping the rave reviews I’d read were reflective of the book itself.

Moving to New York to chase a boy and a dream, Reno finds herself caught up in a life like nothing she has ever seen before. Rapidly swept up by events beyond her control, she finds herself travelling the world in a time when political upheaval means no one is safe.

I wrote last week about another shortlisted novel that managed to balance substance and style in a way that felt compelling and real. Unfortunately, coming to The Flamethrowers was something of a let-down. It feels like it wants to be a big, important novel. Certainly it seems to be doing everything in its power to breakdown the stereotypes of books usually ascribed to female authors—there is no doubting this is big, bold and political in intent.

Ostensibly the largest problem with the novel, though, is a structural one—we jump around from place to place, leaving the reader confused and isolated. Instead of taking the time to engender an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist, Kushner gets sidetracked by all the historical events and movements she is so clearly fascinated with. There’s no mistaking that many of these events are fascinating in their own right—the 70s was a time of huge political upheaval in both the US and Italy—but by trying to crowbar all of them into one novel has the effect of diluting the potency of each one. Instead of tying them all into one grand narrative, they come off as disparate and monotonous.

These kinds of widescreen novels can be saved if the common thread between narrative strands is strong. Unfortunately, the strand in The Flamethrowers—our protagonist, Reno—is not. She often comes across as nothing more than a tool to allow Kushner to explore the times and places that interest her, rather than a real person. Her seeming inability to react to anything that happens to her (and, to be fair, quite a lot does happen to her) opens a distance between character and writer that so often spells doom for a novel.

The Flamethrowers is not a bad book, but it does feel like a lot of what is wrong with contemporary literary fiction has been shoved into it: sweeping temporal and spatial settings that make it hard to get a grip on anyone or anything; characters that devolve into caricatures; and a tone that comes off as self-important. Check it out if you’re interested in 1970s Italian political history—otherwise, it’s a long, meandering ride.

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Southern Cross the Dog (2013) – Bill CHENG

The recent win by 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars has once again reminded us all that the United States is a great nation built on a terrible past. The complete and utter subjugation of one group of people to do the nation building of another is a scar that has still not healed in the United States. Bill Cheng attempts to unpack just a tiny part of this history in his debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog. (I’m not going to lie—I picked this up almost exclusively for its title. I’m a patriotic sucker like that.)

After the Great Flood of 1927, Robert Chatham is left alone. As he drifts around Mississippi, he finds that being an outsider in the deep south is not easy.

There is no question as to who the villains are in this piece. Off the top of my head, I can think of no white character that is kind to a black character for any extended period of time. And, one supposes, this is historically accurate. Though we might be in the early twentieth century here, we are closer in culture to 12 Years a Slave than we are to speeches about dreams.

And yet, despite the fact that this part of history is ripe for telling stories of injustice and heartbreak, Southern Cross feels somehow soulless. There is no question that the writing is excellent—Cheng’s evocation of a time and place is near flawless—but one can never feel truly close to these characters. Perhaps it is the constant narrative jumps—just as you get close to one person, you have to recalibrate your emotions to prepare for another depressing tale. These kinds of non-chronological narratives can allow authors to play with reader perceptions of events and characters, but the fact that Robert seems never to change in each episode leaves you wondering why bother doing it in the first place.

This is not to say there are not moments when Cheng’s ability to write matches his ability to evoke a human response from his characters. Sketches from Robert’s youth are gorgeous—there is one in particular where the three Chatham men are out hunting, only to be stumbled upon by a duo of white men who have no qualms about beating young black men to remind them of their place. It’s horrific, and the pain of the injustice of this society is keenly felt, unlike in many other places through the novel.

I am curious to see what Cheng does next. If he returns to this Southern Gothic-style tale, I would love to see him try and push the boundaries a little further. Though the politics and argument are there, they are not moulded into a piece of fiction that grabs you by the throat, that makes you feel for these people. Fiction is more than pretty words and big ideas—it’s about making your reader feel something.

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