Tag Archives: historical novel

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Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-American author, takes an historical document as her starting point.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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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.

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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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After Darkness (2014) – Christine PIPER

We have a winner! After last year’s non-starter, the judges of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award deigned to award this year’s prize to Christine Piper’s first novel, After Darkness. And with the recent changes to the way the award is administered, the day after it was announced, the book was available for purchase. And as someone who has a keen interest in the history between Japan and Australia, how could I say no?

Dr Ibaraki has come to Broome to escape his life in Japan, and for the first time in a long time, he feels like he truly belongs. But the Pacific War has arrived on his doorstep, and along with other Japanese residents of the city, he is forced into an internment camp thousands of kilometres away. Meeting up with other displaced Japanese, Ibaraki is forced to finally confront his past.

The narrative itself is split into three timeframes; the first is Ibaraki’s time in Japan, explaining why he moved to Australia; the second is his time in Broome as the doctor at the Japanese hospital; while the final is shows his time in the Loveday camp. The first two strands are fairly solid, though if you are in any way familiar with the history of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, the ‘twist’ of what Ibaraki is really working on in his lab in Tokyo will come as no surprise at all. Both are there, though, to serve a greater purpose: to show us that, time and time again, Ibaraki is wilfully blind to the situation around him.

A quick glance at Piper’s website shows that her PhD project involved researching first-hand stories of Japanese interns in Australian intern camps during the Pacific War. In particular, she looked at one camp in South Australia called Loveday. It is no surprise, then, that the bulk of this novel’s heft comes from that place and time. This section perfectly encapsulates a great many things about history and identity, and it is here that Piper’s skills as a writer come to the fore.

Ibaraki, of course, has no desire to go home. His wife has left him, and he has begun to build a life in Australia that is more than anything he could have imagined. And yet his first instinct is to side with his ‘own’ people—other Japanese nationals living itinerantly in Australia. It’s an interesting decision, particularly since establishment Japanese men have burned him once before, but it is also entirely understandable. His entire life up until this point has been an Ishiguro-esque attempt to ignore everything that goes on around him. Taught to have unblinking belief in his superiors and in the Japanese way, he cannot imagine a life outside the hierarchy. And yet his time in Broome, and in the camp, has forced him to reconsider: as he says, “What else, through my misguided loyalty, had I failed to see?”

Stories like After Darkness remind us that the multicultural history of Australia did not simply begin in the 1970s with the final abolition of the White Australia policy. This country has been engaging with Asia in deep and complex ways for decades, and this novel is a small, but important, reminder of one such episode.

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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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The Dead Lake (2011) – Hamid ISMAILOV

A new year, a new Peirene subscription. And while earlier series tended towards the Scandinavian, this year’s Coming of Age series takes us to Russia and Libya—though admittedly, still through the European languages of Russian and French. Still, it’s nice to see this publishing house move beyond their original remit. Hopefully it keeps things fresh and exciting.

When Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, its vast swathes of steppe were used to test nuclear weapons. In a tiny village near one of the anonymous test sites, Yerzhan is growing into a man. But it’s not easy to live in the literal shadow of nuclear weapons, and when Yerzhan stops growing just as he enters his teens, he begins to worry.

Though they are only tangentially related to the goings on of the politics of the Cold War, the spectre of the 1960s—and everything that came with it—lingers over these characters, in a way unlike any novel set in America, or even metropolitan Russia at the time. The war itself means nothing to their daily lives (other than the occasional piece of meaningless propaganda from the Soviets), and yet they feel the effects of it every day. They live close to an atomic test site, and their lives are punctuated by occasional nuclear explosions in the not-so-distant distance. Donkeys, horses and wolves all sense when an explosion is about to take place, and act as warning triggers for the humans. Even still, a nuclear explosion is nothing to be sneezed at, and the threat of being burned alive hangs over them like the heavy mushroom clouds that form after an experiment has been completed.

These tests have made the landscape even more desolate than it originally was.  More than anything, this work is an evocation of the landscape that forms the backdrop to the action. Ismailov paints a vivid picture of the desolately beautiful Kazakh steppe ruined by constant bombardment from these man-made . From grey nights to deserted ghost towns, there is a sense that these families are living in a barren land, a land that simply is not fit for humanity. And without spoiling anything, the bleak last line certainly feeds into that theme.

This sense of oppression filters through to the characters and their lives. From a young age, it is clear that Yerzhan, has a talent for music. He is quickly given the nickname Wunderkind (buldur kimdir in Kazakh) by his family, and is even given lessons by a man in the village who studied music in the capital. And yet, despite his obvious talent, when he is given the chance to move to the city to keep learning, his family deem it unnecessary. Instead, he continues to study in the backwater that is his village.

His anger at not being able to grow any more, then, is not just frustration at not being physically larger. At every turn, his emotional and cultural growth is stunted by the Soviets using his backyard as a dumping ground for their nuclear tests. He is unable to purse the career he wants, he is unable to live the lie he wants, and he cannot love the girl he loves without constant, niggling self-doubt.

Ignoring the (mostly) useless framing story about two men meeting on a train, The Dead Lake is a small window into a time and place untouched by Western concern, and Ismailove is not afraid of asking big questions. What happens to people outside the spheres of influence in a huge global movement? Deprived of any opportunity to better themselves, or to learn something new, or to dream large, how are people past even the fringes of society able to have a good life? Ismailov’s conclusions are a reminder of the ripple effect of war—it is not just those fighting who are affected, but all who are drawn into the vortex.

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Chasing the King of Hearts (2006) – Hanna KRALL

So often, Holocaust literature seems to concern itself with trying to tie in personal experiences with a wider historical context. Determined to highlight the horrors of the entire event, authors lost sight of the small stories that also took place during this time. It is one of these small stories that Hanna Krall tells in her short novel, Chasing the King of Hearts.

Izolda’s husband has been captured. And in 1942 Warsaw, this is not good news for Jewish people. Determined to find her true love, Izolda begins to plot to get him back. And nothing will stop her.

In fact, it is questionable whether we can even term this a Holocost novel. More than anything, this is a novel of undying love, and the power that can be taken from love. Izolda is so certain of her love for her husband, and of her finding him, that she seems almost impervious to the events around her. Though she is, in turn, captured by the Gestapo, imprisoned, tortured, tattooed, and eventually taken to Auschwitz, she holds on to one mission.

She seems so impervious, in fact, to all of these things, that Izolda can often be hard to get a grip on as a lead character. Her stubborn refusal to let anything affect her search for her husband makes her both admirable and frustratingly opaque. She is not the stereotypical wife of a man who has been captured—she has a plan, a way to execute it, and the determination to do so. But in not letting her main character react to anything, Krall denies us the opportunity to see how this context affects human relationships outside of the marriage.

It is not until after the war, when she is living in Israel with her Hebrew-speaking granddaughters in the above-mentioned flashforwards, that she is able to feel once again. And what she feels is sadness. Not for what happened to her, but for the fact that her granddaughters do not understand. Since she does not speak Hebrew, and they don’t speak Polish, there is no way for her to communicate her true feelings. Perhaps this is the point Krall is trying to make. We cannot understand the Holocaust because we weren’t there.

This is compounded by the short chapters that are perhaps symptomatic of a short novel. These slivers of narrative are almost uniformly brilliant: some further the plot, others are flashforwards to Izolas’s future, others still are meditations on life, religion and humanity in times of war. And yet the whole somehow remains less than the sum of its parts.

For all its moments of brilliance (and there are quite a few), Chasing the King of Hearts is not an easy novel to like. Led by a character who is determined not to let anyone in, Krall goes almost too far down this path and doesn’t allow the reader a chance to get to know or sympathise with Izolda. And while unlikeable characters are a valid part of literature, characters who fail to make a connection with the reader are not.

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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.

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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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