Tag Archives: family

Booker Prize 2015: Shortlists and Winners

That’s it!

You’ll notice there are three books missing from my reviews over the past three days – I have read them, but just couldn’t bring myself to expend any energy on writing about them: Sleeping on Jupiter is dull, The chimes is an average example of a dystopian future, and Satin island forgets that a novel has to have emotional heft as well as intellectual.

I’m still worried the Americans have invaded:

So. The shortlist. I’m surprised, slightly, that my own shortlist is actually pretty similar to the official one.

My shortlist:
Did you ever have a family, Bill Clegg
A brief history of seven killings, Marlon James
The fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
The year of the runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
A little life, Hanya Yanagihara

Among those six, there are four that I would be happy to see win: James, Obioma, Sahota or Yanagihara. All are spectacularly excellent novels that deserve a wide readership, and really speak to a lot of what is going on in the world today.

But I am going to pick a winner. And I know it’s the favourite, and I know it’s an easy out, but I’m really hoping A little life gets up. I know it’s divisive, but for me, it really was the best thing on this longlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a 700-page brick so fast, and even though it’s often melodramatic, overwrought and ridiculous, it really is, underneath all that, a book about the incredible strength love can give us if we just let it in.

And that’s it! If I remember, I’ll write a reaction post to the winner – tomorrow night, AEDST.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , ,

Manazuru (2006) – KAWAKAMI Hiromi

作家:川上 弘美

The Japanese Literature Publishing Project is a Japanese Government program dedicated to promoting Japanese literature in translation. A noble goal, to be sure, but if this novel is anything to go by, they might want to rethink the texts they’re putting on their recommendation lists.

Unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband went missing thirteen years ago, Kei is drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru, where she hopes to find answers. In doing so, though, she comes dangerously close to losing those that are most important to her.

Kawakami taps into that very modern strain of Japanese literature made so popular world-wide thanks to He Who Shall Not Be Named, a genre in which bizarre things happen to people, leaving them isolated and alone in modern Japan. It is not a sub-genre that I can particularly get behind, so the quasi-fantasy setting, along with a very weak ending, did nothing for me.

The most intriguing parts come from the discussions between Kei and Seiji, in which he beates her for not being able to let go of her missing husband. Of course, this is probably wildly unfair, particularly when Seiji himself is still married with children—not exactly a model of commitment. Seiji is, annoyingly, correct though—Rei is living half a life, unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband has been missing for so long. In many ways, it would be better if he had been found dead—at least, then, she could find some kind of closure.

Kawakami, though, refuses to give her character (or her readers) any closure. About halfway through, there’s a slight hint that, actually Kei already knows what has happened to her husband, but is subconsciously choosing to repress the memory. Which is fine, but after about three pages, it’s never mentioned again.

Combined with this inability to move on is the very real fact that her daughter, Momo, is growing up and very much moving on with her life, as only teenagers can. Rei finds herself increasingly unable to understand her daughter’s actions. It is perhaps this isolation that drives her to the seaside town of Manazuru, sent by a gut feeling and, as it turns out, a mysterious spirit woman who seems to be able to communicate from beyond the grave.

I have no problem with fantasy, or even magical realism—and I get why Kawakami is using it here—but that doesn’t preclude it from being mind-numbingly dull here. There’s enough material here (from Kei’s meditations on family and motherhood, to the increasing isolation between mother and daughter—over two generations) to not have to rely on these cheap parlour tricks. Instead, though, we have another novel written in the wake of He Who Must Not Be Named that thinks his style is the only way to write a contemporary Japanese novel. Which is just plain wrong.

Just one final fun fact before I end this. I looked up Manazuru to see if it was a real place—it is. But in my research, I also discovered that another author, Shiga Naoya (志賀直哉) wrote a short story in 1920 also called Manazuru, about a young boy who falls in love with an older woman. I can’t find a lot of information on it, other than a few blog posts, but if anyone knows more about it—and the relationship to this novel—I’d be super interested to hear.

Tagged , ,

The Lives of Others (2014) – Neel MUKHERJEE

Only three Indian novels have won the Booker, and two of them (which won in the last decade), are small-scale family dramas. While Mukherjee is continuing the trend of Indian family dramas appearing in Booker lists, this is not a small novel. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity may have noticed that I don’t read a lot of big books. I must confess, this is because I tend to find them offputting. Committing yourself to anything over 500 pages requires an act of great faith in an author, and I can’t think of many that I trust that implicitly. However, in an attempt to get over this, I pulled Neel Mukherjee’s Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others off the shelf.

Although I was aware of the Naxalites before reading this, I certainly wasn’t aware of the horrific acts of violence they undertook the name of progress and ideology. What is perhaps even more galling is the fact that so many of them—Supratik included—are not part of the poor, disenfranchised they are supposed to be lifting out of poverty. They are simply spoiled middle-class boys who think going around to villages causing trouble will be a laugh. Like all bull-headed twenty-somethings obsessed with ideology over the real world, they think what they are doing is right and just, even though they are, in fact, upsetting delicately balanced relationships (that, granted, should be upset), an action that eventually devolves into murder. These are not heroes to be worshipped—they are garden-variety terrorists that should be stopped.

And yet, the punishment that is eventually meted out to Supratik is brutal. The physical and emotional torture he faces at the hands of the police after his arrest is cruelty of the highest order, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. It’s a testament to Mukherjee that he made me sympathise with Supartik near the end.

Parallel to this (so parallel, in fact, it often seems like it is taking place in a parallel universe) is the rather charming story of the Ghoshes—a middle-class family on the verge of falling apart. As their accumulated wealth slowly trickles from their hands, cracks in the already tense familial relationships begin to appear. Some of these scenes are the best in the novel—Mukherjee has a talent for finding the worst in people, and still ensuring that we care about them. Each time we return to family life, we follow a different member of the family, struggling to find their own place in a family creaking with history and expectation. Though their actions may adversely affect others, when we are with them, we are with them all the way.

Despite some structural issues, as well as slightly confusing/slow start, The Lives of Others has a lot to offer. The two competing storylines are both important, and while it might have made more sense to separate them out, allowing them to run simultaneously allows Mukherjee to remind us that, while huge political shifts are happening, human nature tends towards ignoring it unless it has a direct influence on you. Recommended.

Tagged , , , ,

Happy Valley (1939) – Patrick WHITE

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , ,

Quesadillas (2012) – Juan Pablo VILLALOBOS

I have a great deal of respect for indie publishers And Other Stories. I admire their philosophy towards the promotion and translation of world literature. Most of the time, though, their personal tastes and mine are at odds. I can now say, though, with great pleasure, that I have read an AOS book that I enjoyed immensely.

The second in a loose trilogy of Mexican ‘state of the nation’ novels, Quesadillas follows thei childhood of a young boy growing up in the slums on the outskirts of a big city. His life changes forever, though, when two things happen: a rich family buy the plot of land next door, and his younger twin siblings go missing in a supermarket riot.

There’s a lot to love here. What strikes one first upon entering is the clarity of voice Villalobos (and Rosalind Harvey, the translator) has created. The sardonic, sarcastic of a man looking back on his vaguely ridiculous childhood is perfectly capture in Orestes’ narration of several key episodes, from the first time the family meet their new rich Polish neighbours, to his own experiences artificially inseminating cows.

The situations in which Orestes finds himself are regularly ridiculous. The scene in which his younger siblings go missing is chaotic and rushed, and there is a sense of the uncontrollable when Villalobos turns his eye to the poor Mexican masses trying to deal with their daily lives. It sets off Orestes and his older brother, Aristotle, on a wild goose chase involving aliens, UFOs and crazy cults that eventually sees the disappearance of another two siblings.

At the heart of the comedy and insanity that shoots through the novel is the quite serious discussion Villalobos wants us to have about class and social mobility in contemporary Mexico, particularly about slum gentrification.

The titular foodstuff is, of course, a rather long extended metaphor for the economic state of the family. It’s a small thing, but it’s a reminder that, unlike so many novels grappling with the past, Villalobos is more concerned with looking at history from the bottom up. Though politicians are present (one particularly memorable scene sees our narrator meet a politician and have perhaps the most bizarre conversation in the entire work), for the most part, they remain external to the action. This is a story where the economic and political circumstances of the time are the background to the story of real people who are directly and indirectly affected by these macro changes.

Orestes’ family is desperately concerned with keeping up appearances, particularly with the arrival of the middle-class neighbours who build a house next door. Though there are only three in the family, their house is more massive than our narrator’s. Desperate to not look poor, Orestes’ family insist that they are middle-class, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

As everything around Orestes slowly unravels, the ending hurtles towards the insane. Somehow, though, Villalobos makes it work. There are hints of absurdism through most of the novel, but for the most part, they remain nothing more than hints. This quickly goes out the window in the final sequence, in which all hell breaks loose, and any attempts to classify this as social realism masquerading as satire go with it.

Quesadillas marks Juan Pablo Villalobos out as a talent to watch. I’ve not read his first novel, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for it. And if And Other Stories knows what’s good for them, they’ll keep him on their books as he hopefully grows into an important voice coming out of Central America.

Tagged , , ,

A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

For those who don’t know, this is Murakami bingo. It’s a humerous take on the fact that every Murakami novel is exactly the same. In his defence, the ratio of elements is occasionally changed—some have more cats, others more weird sex with young girls. Seriously, the day that man wins the Nobel Prize will be a sad day for literature.

My point is that Murakami has (indirectly) been responsible for what people consider Japanese literature to be. As such, people wanting to write about Japan are judged to either be Murakami-esque or not. I haven’t read any of Ruth Ozeki’s other novels, but if they’re anything like A Tale for the Time Being, it would be safe to label her Murakami-esque.

Fortunately, Ozeki manages to rise above the superficial similarities between her and Murakami by actually placing themes and ideas underneath them. Her interrogation of the stress placed on certain kinds of people in contemporary Japan seems more real than any of Murakami’s disenfranchised protagonists.

The symbol of the run-down salaryman as a stand-in for all the oppression in modern Japan was tired ten years ago. Nao represents a much more modern problem: that of the kikoku shijo (帰国子女). These kids are the offspring of enterprising Japanese parents who were brave enough to move overseas and put their kids into a non-Japanese school. For various reasons, when these kids eventually return to school in Japan, they are bullied mercilessly for the simple fact that they left Japan. Nao’s treatment at the hands of her classmates and teachers is horrific, and the fact that she considers suicide as an option should come as no surprise.

Competing against this tale of Japan is the tale of Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian author who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach of the island she and her husband live on. She is explicitly made the reader of Nao’s diary, which opens with a direct invitation to be her reader. It’s an interesting way to construct a novel. There’s a nice sense of immediacy when Nao uses the second-person to talk directly to the reader of her diary, a sense that is lost immediately when that reader is Ruth, and not us. I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, and personally, I would have been just as happy to have a novel half the size, with Nao talking directly to me.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Ozeki included this parallel story. Various interviews with her suggest that she, too, was struggling to start another story after finishing her previous novel several years ago. And so Ruth the writer becomes Ruth the character, and in the spirit of the Japanese form, the 私小説 (watakushishōsetsu)—a form that is named in Time Being—Ozeki writes about her own life in a fictionalised, stylised version.

My final point, and this is a small one, is that I found the hundreds of footnotes wildly intrusive. But that was because I actually speak Japanese, so didn’t need the glosses. I did like the occasional forays into script in the body text, though. It’s probably the only time a book with Japanese script in it is going be shortlisted for the Booker.

For sheer novelty factor alone, A Tale for the Time Being should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. But behind the novelty of having what is essentially a Japanese novel on the shortlist is a novel that actually tries to dissect a whole load of things, from contemporary Japanese society to small-town Canadian culture, from weird animals to bullish teenage girls.

Finally, I don’t know how Text managed to do it, but the Australian cover is about a thousand times better than any other region’s.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Death of a River Guide (1994) – Richard FLANAGAN

Aljaz Cosini is in something of a spot of bother. He is lying at the bottom of the Franklin River, trapped under a rock. He is dying. But something strange is happening. Instead of blacking out, he finds himself having visions he cannot control. As the history of his ancestors flashes before his eyes, he is forced to examine his own life.

Those of us on the mainland have a tendency to mock Tasmania, I think, for a whole variety of reasons. But there is something to be said for the strength of a Tasmanian identity over an Australian identity, and Flanagan does his darndest in this novel to create a Tasmanian literature, removed from mainstream Australian literature.

There are, of course, similarities to what we might term traditional tropes of Australian literature: a violent colonial history; an uneasy relationship between white and non-white Australians; and a contemporary society struggling to come to terms with these things. But Flanagan reappropriates these into a uniquely Tasmanian context, tracking them through almost the entire history of the tiny island, as well as through the history of the people throughout history who have emigrated to the land to find a new life.

It’s startling (and, quite frankly, a little depressing) to realise that Death of a River Guide is Flanagan’s first novel. Not only is he in complete command of the language—in his descriptions of Aljaz’s interiority as well as his bountiful descriptions of the Franklin River and its surroundings—but structurally, too, the novel is almost perfect. The series of seemingly random flashbacks through Tasmanian history experienced by Aljaz as he lays dying slowly shimmer into order. As the history of Tasmania becomes the history of his ancestors, so too do the dark secrets of Tasmanian history become the dark secrets of Aljaz’s family. Things Tasmania has tried to hide are things hidden from Aljaz as a child, but like all family secrets, they eventually come out.

Again and again, Flanagan connects Aljaz’s feeling of isolation to his time away from the Tasmanian landscape. It is only when Aljaz comes home, to where he belongs, that he is able to feel calm once again, and come to terms with what has happened to him. In fact, it is not until the very end of the novel when Aljaz is able to fully accept his life, mistakes and all. It takes his coming to a point just moments before death at the hands of the natural environment to allow himself forgiveness. Aljaz’s existential epiphany comes as he is submersed in a uniquely Tasmanian river. It’s a powerful image, and one that hijacks tradition and reappropriates it into an Antipodean context.

I don’t think Richard Flanagan wants us all to almost drown in a freezing river on the west coast of Tasmania, but he certainly wants us to think more closely about the relationships between individuality, family, nature and history. Death of a River Guide deals deftly with the complexity of these relationships, and proves that Richard Flanagan is one of the best contemporary Australian novelists.

Tagged , , , , ,