Tag Archives: historical novel

The Islands (1999) – Carlos GAMERRO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gathering (2007) – Anne ENRIGHT

The recent debate over the Booker Prize’s perceived shift away from the literary and towards the ‘readable’ overlooks a variety of important facts. The first, of course, is that one judge, in an off-hand comment, suggested that there is no point awarding a novel that no one will read—a comment that, taken at face value, seems to be eminently true.

The other important fact is that many of the recent winners have been big, complicated novels dealing with big, complicated ideas. Enright’s The Gathering is no exception.

The eponymous gathering is that of a large Irish Catholic family. Liam, the younger brother of our narrator Veronica, has died of an alcoholic overdose, and the family has come to mourn. As the family struggle to come to terms with this death, Veronica finds herself attempting to piece together just why Liam might have taken his own life.

It’s hard not to describe The Gathering without it sounding like a litany of Irish literature clichés: Catholicism, families, alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse and depression all get a good workout. But Enright takes those themes and turns them on their head with the inclusion of a rather interesting take on memory and narration. It’s also to Enright’s credit that, despite the horrific and depressing nature of this tale, I didn’t want to top myself by the end.

There are two themes at the heart of this novel: family, and memory. As Veronica tries desperately to understand how and why Liam’s life came to suicide, she begins to remember her childhood, growing up with her many brothers and sisters. She also tries to piece together how she became so unhappily married—she has been unable to sleep with her husband (both metaphorically and literally) since Liam died. All of a sudden, she cannot quite believe how her life came to be nothing more than a mother and wife, driving a fancy car, married to a man who seems to spend all his time in the office, away from his wife and two daughters.

In an even greater feat of memory, Veronica imagines/remembers her mother and her grandmother’s lives, too. The recurring theme in all three lives is the way in which women seem to been driven mad by the responsibilities placed on them by simply having a family. As though these tales are handed down from woman to woman, Veronica finds herself reliving the pains of her grandmother’s lost love, of her mother’s miscarriages. Each and every woman seems to find herself battered and bruised simply by having to adhere to the conventions required of the women of their time.

Veronica admits her own failings as a storyteller/narrator about halfway through the novel. She knows there is something that probably caused Liam’s unhappiness, but has been unwilling to remember it. Perhaps because she feels guilty, or perhaps not, but she has chosen to forget that Liam was sexually assaulted by an uncle when they were children. Though it is not spelt out, it is heavily implied that this incident led to Liam’s hedonistic life of drinking and debauchery. The implicit judgement—that sexual abuse is not a one-off case of assault—is horrific, and should give us all cause to think.

The two warring elements of this novel—the investigation of the twentieth-century Irish family, and the construction of a story from imperfect human memory—come together perfectly, highlighting Enright’s gifts as both storyteller and examiner of the human condition. For anyone sceptical of the Booker’s ability to find classics, try The Gathering.

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Mateship With Birds (2012) – Carrie TIFFANY

The inaugural Stella Prize was announced last week. Conveniently, because Mateship With Birds was longlisted for both the Stella and the Miles Franklin, I thought I should probably read it and see what all the fuss as all about. Looking through the archives of this place, it would appear that I have in fact read Carrie Tiffany’s first book, Everyday Rules for Scientific Living, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.

Harry lives next-door to Betty. Betty has two children who, in many ways, see Harry as their surrogate father. Underneath this arrangement, though, is the desire Harry has for Betty, and the desire Betty has for Harry. As time passes, the question of whether they will act on their feelings

The hilariously Australian pun in the title—for those across the seas, ‘bird’ is a very retro, slightly derogatory term for women—highlights the main theme of the novel: the relationship between men and women.

The most obvious, of course, is the relationship between Harry and Betty who, despite living next-door to each other for many years, and despite the fact that both seem to be attracted to the other, they never act on it in anything more than awkward social fumblings. The reasons for this are never explicitly stated, though Tiffany suggests that perhaps it is because of the historical context—Betty has moved to this town because her past as an unmarried woman with two children has proved to be problematic for her family in the past.

Because Harry feels he never had the chance to learn about women, Harry decides to educate Betty’s teenage son, Michael, in the ways of women. The two have already formed a close bond over bird watching, and in many ways, as the only adult male in proximity, Harry acts as a surrogate father to Michael. But like any man, particularly one who actually has little real-world experience with wooing and loving real women, Harry’s advice is tinged with his own past mistakes. Unable to draw on any experiences of his own, the advice given to Michael is littered with well-meaning but ultimately incorrect information. Who knows, perhaps this is Tiffany’s own little dig at the way men talk about sex to the next generation.

At the end of each scene/chapter/section, Tiffany gives us part of a poem about kookaburras, penned by Harry himself. Structurally, it’s really nice—the trials and the tribulations of the kookaburra family are contrasted with Betty’s family to good effect—but it still frustrated me. I have to confess, I’m not a huge fan of poetry in novels, so I found myself zoning out. I know, I know. I’m a terrible person.

It’s easy to fill the voids that Tiffany creates in Mateship With Birds, to fill in the gaps, both thematically and plot-wise, that stretch out between the glimpses of life afforded us on the pages. Questions of love obviously linger above everything that happens—Harry’s unspoken, unacted feelings towards Betty, for example—and in some ways, this is to the detriment of the novel. There’s a lot to be said for allowing the reader to read meaning into a text, but when there is so much blank space on your canvas, it begins to look more unfinished than purposefully unanswered.

I don’t usually say this, but I would have loved for Tiffany to go into more detail, broadening her scope. In just over 200 pages, we cover quite a lot of time, leaving one with the distinct impression of fleetingness that doesn’t quite satisfy. There is no doubt that Mateship With Birds is well written, but it lacks that killer punch that makes good writing great.

And I still think The Burial should have won.

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The Commandant (1975) – Jessica ANDERSON

Expectations are a funny thing. If a book is marked as a ‘classic’—particularly as a forgotten classic that needs re-evaluating—a reader can be forgiven for expecting something quite special. This is particularly relevant considering my past encounters with Text Classics—forgotten Australian novels that Michael Heyward thinks deserve a wider audience. For the most part, I have enjoyed reading old Australian novels. So when I read the blurb for The Commandant, I was expecting a novel full of fireworks and fights, of complex moral ambiguity.

The first scene is a promising opening. On a ship from Sydney bound for Moreton Bay, several women are discussing their future lives. Of particular interest to us is Francis, whose sister, Letty, is married to the commandant of Moreton Bay: Patrick Logan. Mr Logan has recently come under fire in Sydney for his perceived bending of the rules when it comes to the punishment of the convicts for whom he is responsible.

But Letty is friends with a journalist who has made claims about Logan; claims Logan has refuted by filing suit against said journalist for defamation. Letty, being the naïve teenager she is, has spent so much time with the journalist’s family, she has been caught up in his truth, and believes Patrick Logan to be a monster, a throw-back to a time that has passed, and needs to be forgotten. I think it’s safe to say that, were she alive today, she would be what some people might disparagingly refer to as a latte-sipping, inner-city, bleeding heart lefty. So, of course, the most exciting thing the novel can offer is the confrontation between a man who believes what he does is right, and a woman who believes what he does is a crime against humanity.

This clash between Frances and Patrick never eventuates quite like I imagined it would, though again, perhaps my expectations were getting in the way of reality. Despite Francis’ willingness to shout loudly her opinions on the ship journey to Moreton Bay, as soon as she meets the man in question, she finds herself barely able to talk. She is, of course, only 17 years old, and Patrick Logan is, if nothing else, a physically imposing man. For Francis to be struck so dumb by the encounter immediately sets up the dynamic of the relationship between the two characters in a way that one might not otherwise expect.

There can be no question that the whipping of convicts—particularly with a cat-o’-nine-tails one hundred times—can be anything other than a vile abuse of power and position. But Patrick Logan never seems to overstep the limits set in place by colonial law when it comes to punishing his charges for their wrongs. And he is certainly not a bad man—yes, he has a bit of a temper, and is not exactly a revolutionary when it comes to penal reform, but not everyone has to be. The promised fight between a lefty on her moral high horse and a traditional man willing to follow the law in order to meet out punishment for people never happens.

Instead, there is talk. A lot of talk. Which, in Anderson’s defence, is something she does very well. All the dialogue in the novel is perfectly pitched, particularly the idiosyncratic speech patterns of Frances’ sister, Letty, whose lisp

It all seems to come to a head about halfway through the novel, when the talking stops, and something actually happens. Frances, who has already crossed social mores, is sexually assaulted by Martin, a young man who works as a gardener for the Logan household. The next events are strange. Frances is blamed for the attack, because she led him along by talking out of turn. Then she pleads for him not to be punished, not with the whip. Of course, Logan assures her that only the appropriate punishment will be given. Of course, the ‘appropriate’ punishment is whipping. The chance to turn this into a journey about Frances having to deal with an actual crime committed against her, and how she deals with punishment, glitters hopefully, like a diamond in a boulder.

But this interesting side road comes to a halting stop when the section ends, plunging us into the final third of the novel, which opens several days after the second ends, and we finds ourselves plunged into the middle of the bush just outside Brisbane, where a search party are looking for Patrick Logan, who has gone walkabout. The momentum built up in the last section surrounding the sexual assault and the subsequent fallout is completely lost as we go into the bush with this group, and spend fifty pages looking for the body of a dead man. It’s an odd choice, and for me, not one that paid off. Again, though, maybe this was just because I was expecting more page time for the clash between Patrick Logan and Francis.

That is the central mystery of The Commandant: why would Patrick Logan, a man so ostensibly committed to the law he has been tasked to uphold, go by himself into the bush? Was it to find the convicts that had escaped the camp to live with the Aboriginal tribes? Was it to escape the gossip surrounding his impending trial? Did he not want to go to India with his regiment? There is never a satisfactory answer, but to be honest, that is not the problem. The problem is that I was never invested enough in any of the answers to particularly care what the answer was.

Does anyone really change by the end of the novel? Have any of these characters learned anything? Frances goes back to Sydney, having seen the punishment Logan (and by extension, the law) hands out, and doesn’t like it. Logan himself is dead. Letty is a widow, and has to move back to Sydney with her children. It all kind of fizzles out in a weirdly anti-climactic fashion.

Expectations are unavoidable. Why read anything if you don’t already have some (at least vague) idea about what you are getting yourself into? But sometimes expectations work against you. The Commandant is a passable historical novel, notable particularly for the fact that it is set in Brisbane, not Sydney. But I’m not sure it’s a classic that deserves to be read for generations to come.

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The Burial (2012) – Courtney COLLINS

What better way to celebrate Australia Day than by reviewing the promising debut novel from a young Australian writer? The Burial has been sitting on the shelves at work, sadly untouched, so I picked it up to see if I couldn’t recommend it to some people. I’m glad I did—it heralds the arrival of someone concerned not just with history, but looking at new ways of telling old stories.

A baby lies dead in the ground. This is the child of Jessie, a young woman about to be on the run for a crime she definitely committed. But this child has a story to tell. It is the story of her mother, the story of a young woman who has turned to a life of crime to escape the problems in her own life. This is the story of Jessie Hickman, bushranger.

First things first. The narration and the language of this novel are glorious. Narrated by the dead baby Jessie gives birth to in one of the first scenes of the novel (yes, this novel is narrated by a zombie baby), the cadence and colour of the narration give this novel a sense of style. Evoking the Gothic made so famous by Faulkner, McCarthy and Flanagan, Collins shows us the brutal magnificence of the Australian landscape. Perhaps it is the very fact that this child is so aware of its own surroundings—that is, the dirt in which it is buried—that there is such a deep connection with the landscape.

Collins populates her novel with intriguing characters, too, not least of which is Jessie herself, a character based on the real-life bushranger, Jessie Hickman. Her history is revealed slowly and surely, in parallel with the trials she currently faces. She has been in gaol for stealing horses, a crime that, in frontier Australia, comes with several years of quality time in lock-up. Once she is out, though, her troubles really begin. Though she has been freed from gaol, she has not been freed from a life of oppression—she must be released into the custody of man, someone who can look after her and make sure she will not get up to any trouble again. She is released into the care of Fitz, a grazier who needs a wife.

Fitz is an easy character to dislike. He has very few redeeming features. He abuses Jessie, both mentally and physically, forcing her to remain in the house while he does much of the physical labour. Soon, though, he sees the value in her ability to steal horses, and forces her to do it for him, fully aware that he will never be convicted of the crime. Their relationship comes to a sticky end as she goes into labour, when she kills him in a quite brutal fashion with an axe. It is his child she gives birth to in the opening sequence, a child she hopes against all hopes is not actually fathered by Fitz.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Jessie should find physical relief in the form of Jack Brown, a young half-Aboriginal man who also works for Fitz. He has his own subplots, including what is perhaps the least interesting part of the novel, detailing his visits to a brothel and subsequent relationship with a Chinese prostitute. Though this character does become important at the climax of the novel, I wonder if there was a way to rearrange it so we didn’t have to go through the early parts.

Jack Brown’s story runs in parallel to Jessie’s, and it follows his attempts to find Jessie—her murder of Fitz has seen a bounty placed on her head, and now everyone is looking for her. He teams up with a new local policeman—Sergeant Barlow is, however, addicted to cocaine, and in no state to go on a race through the bush—to track her down and save her. This is his motive: he loves her and he wants to save her. A noble sentiment, if ever there was one, but one based on a wildly inaccurate assumption—that Jessie needs saving by anyone.

Collins goes out of her way to explore the plight of women in this pioneering society. Away from the social movements of the 1920s in the inner-cities, women are still treated as second-class citizens in the valley where Jessie roams. The two main female characters—Jessie, as well as the old woman who give she shelter when she runs away—are both in abusive relationships. The entire point of the novel, though, is that Jessie does not need rescuing. She can make her own way in this dangerous world so unfriendly to independent women—what she really needs is a world where women are allowed to be what they want to be.

Jessie seems happiest when she stumbles upon a band of boy thieves, who are also trying to steal horses and resell them. Though initially cautious of one another, she forms a bond with the merry band, and together, they pull off an audacious plan that, surprisingly, almost works perfectly. Sadly, it does force her to once again run away from her problems, as Collins builds to a climax that sees the perhaps inevitable showdown between law and criminal that must be faced by all bushranger novels. Fortunately, Jessie’s stand does not go the same way as Ned Kelly’s at Glenrowan. She again manages to escape, finding herself on the run once again.

The Burial is not a long book, but it is eminently engaging, relying on a narrative trick that could so easily be gimmicky, but never is. Collins creates a beautiful narrative in both voice and structure, heralding the arrival of a new Australian talent that has a bright future. A strong contender, I should think, for this year’s crop of awards.

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The Memory of Love (2010) – Aminatta FORNA

Now that I’ve joined a pretty informal book club, I get to read things I’ve been meaning to for ages but haven’t gotten around to it. The Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2011, a prize that has recently been revamped, now being awarded to debut novels. It’s nice to see an African novel from outside of Nigeria, too – the triple threat of Achebe, Adichie and Habila is often hard to fight.

I don’t know if it’s because I kept comparing it to Half of a Yellow Sun – which I know is unfair – but I kept waiting for the war to actually start. The two concurrent narratives take place before and after the war, leaving the horrors of the war to our own imagination. It’s not a bad idea, but I think I would have preferred to see, at the very least, the initial break-out of war, rather than cutting off before it. Instead, Forna concerns herself with how people deal with the past, and the lies they tell themselves about the past to make them feel good about themselves.

The most obvious way she does this is by parachuting a white British psychiatrist into Sierra Leone to deal with patients with PTSD. He serves two functions: the first is providing an outsider point of view, allowing us outsiders a way in. Of course, as with all outsiders, Adrian doesn’t fully understand the situation in which he has found himself, and tries to solve it in ways he knows. Forna makes an interesting point with Adrian – he is the stand-in figure for white people coming to Africa, thinking they understand the indigenous problems, thinking they can solve these long-term issues with ideas from the West.

Adrian also becomes our way into stories from the war. Obviously the central one is Elias’, but there are other, smaller stories he encounters. From the small deaf homeless boy to the woman who goes into a fugue state to mentally escape the horrors she endured in the war, Forna populates her novel with people who have had to learn to cope with the fall-out from a civil war that tore a country apart.

Adrian’s friend Kai, a surgeon who has had to learn to deal with everyday patients as opposed to M*A*S*H-style war surgery, figures heavily in Adrian’s new life. They form a strangely close relationship quite early on (a lot of us at book club thought there was going to be a big gay love story, but we were way off), and Kai’s own acceptance of war is a different tale from the others. Realising there is nothing left for him in Sierra Leone, he makes plans to emigrate to America – in this novel, he seems to be the only one interested in leaving. Is this because he thinks he has lost so much more than anyone else? Or because he’s the only person with enough money to actually follow through?

Elias’ story, on the other had, takes us to just before the breakout of the Sierra Leone civil war. A young university teacher, he finds himself isolated from the rest of his group of friends because he is somewhat socially awkward. But as the narrative progresses, it becomes rapidly clear that Elias Cole is actually a deeply unlikeable person. Desperately in love with the girlfriend of a friend, he slowly becomes a little creepy as he does everything he can to manufacture meetings with her. For a long time, Saffia seems completely oblivious to Elias’ intentions, though, thinking he is simply being friendly. Once Saffia and Julius marry, though, Elias doesn’t get the hint, continuing his pursuit of a woman that his now completely unavailable to him.

This is all build-up to the ultimate act of betrayal that is central to the novel, the one that affects almost all other characters, no matter how indirectly. When the two of them are in gaol on trumped up charges of sedition, Elias hears Julius choking to death. And then he doesn’t do anything about it.

No doubt there is some jealousy threaded through Elias’ actions. His refusal to believe that Saffia would fall for someone other than him makes him hate Julius more and more, and without thinking, he leaves Julius to die. In his very poor defence, he didn’t expect the other man to choke to death. But by not doing anything to help when he hears the sounds of choking, he is implicit in a death that could probably have been avoided. I certainly thought that’s where we were all headed – seeming the logical choice in a book about the effects of war would have been to have Julius killed by the police – but then, Forna and I don’t see eye to eye on what makes a good plot.

The Memory of Love is not bad. There are some nice scenes under which universal themes of love, betrayal and jealousy are built. But it didn’t go where I thought it would go – and more importantly, where I thought it should go. I would have liked to see Forna deal more with the war itself. I would have liked Adrian to be a bit stronger as a character. Novels like Half Blood Blues dealt with this in a better way – certainly for me, anyway.

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Black Flower (2003) – KIM Young-ha

It’s safe to say that, by far, this was the novel I was most looking forward to reading when the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist was announced. A fan of Kim’s previous novel, Your Republic is Calling You, the idea that he was turning his gaze to an obscure moment in Korean diaspora history made me very, very excited. And it’s because of these expectations that I was a little disappointed in what I found.

In 1904, a ship set sail from Busan. It carried one thousand Koreans, bound for Mexico, where they have been promised a new life, away from the oncoming storm that is the Japanese Empire. But when they arrive, they discover that everything they have been told is a lie. They are there to be indentured labour, unlikely to ever return to their homes. So they must make a new life for themselves in a foreign country, halfway around the globe.

I love research. I love reading books, finding references to other books, creating a web of information and knowledge. I also know that researching is about a million times more fun than writing—you can do all this reading and call it work without anyone blinking an eye. But there is a point where you must put down your books and get writing. I think Kim probably got to this point too late in his writing of this book, leaving it full of interesting facts about the story he is telling, to the detriment of the actual heart of literature. It’s all good and well to take an historical event and turn it into a novel, but you have to remember why you did it in the first place. If you are more concerned with the event than how the event affected the people, then maybe you should think about writing a non-fiction work.

The historical background Kim is writing about is fascinating. Admittedly, I just spent the last year writing about the Korean diaspora in Japan, so I have an interest in Korean diasporic movement. But like the Koreans in Japan, and indeed, like the Japanese in Brazil, a group of about 1000 Koreans were lured to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico with the promise of hard work, then freedom and riches. Of course, as with most mass migrations like this in the early twentieth century, this was a well-executed lie to get cheap Asian labour to parts of the Western world to avoid rising wages for Western workers.

This exploitation of people who don’t know any better is a legitimate and worthy part of twentieth century to explore through fiction. There are so many stories to tell: the family torn apart, the new immigrant worked to the bone, the coming together of people in times of need, the breakdown of social and cultural mores in the face of adversity. Kim touches on all of these, but in passing—he is far more keen to fill our faces with minor details about Mexican history that, while do inform the novel, are out of place in a text of this length. The ratio of character moments to historical detail is weighted far too heavily toward the latter. I don’t say this often, but if he wanted to keep all that detail in there, he would have been much better off doing so as part of a much longer, epic, widescreen work. Too often I found myself skimming over passages about the intricacies of the Mexican Revolution that had nothing to do with any of the main characters.

The blurb of my edition suggests that this will be a love story, between a young man reborn on his trip to Mexico, Kim Ijeong, and the daughter of an aristocratic caught up in the trip, Yi Yeonsu. Their relationship certainly informs much of the novel. Their meeting on the ship is by chance, and foreshadows much of the degradation of social systems that will rapidly take place once the thousand have left Korea. Of course, as with all teenagers left unwatched, their relationship quickly becomes physical.  When they arrive in Mexico, they are taken to different haciendas, farm/estates where Koreans are used as cheap labour. They manage to meet up again, and in one of their secret trysts, conceive a child. But Ijeong is caught up in other events, and he leaves, completely oblivious to the fact that he has just fathered a child.

And the two never meet again. They go their separate ways, living their own lives, caught up in the Mexican Revolution that seems to catch so many Koreans in its wake. Or maybe that’s just Kim putting his characters where he wants them so he can talk more about Mexican history.

Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the novel are the ones where Kim ignores all the history going on and focuses on his characters. The role of religion plays a huge part in the novel, right from before everyone boards the ship, when a priest, Bak Jeonghun, is robbed of his cross, by a thief, Choe Seongil. Though, at this stage in history, not so many Koreans are Christian, they are brought to Mexico, which is. And so tension arises when the Koreans want to practice their own funeral/marriage ceremonies, even though they are what might be viewed as heathen by some Christians. It’s a strand that, actually, could have been brought out even more to highlight the cultural differences between the two groups. Sadly, this was not to be.

I feel like this is the second time I’ve said this in as many months, but if you are looking for a story about the labourer exodus from Asia in the early twentieth century, there really is no better novel than Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. Though Kim reaches for similar heights, trying to tell the story of thousands at once, Black Flower falls short of his target. Too caught up in the macro, he forgets that the best literature focuses on the macro, the personal stories that act as a mirror for history.

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The Bathing Women (2000) – TIE Ning

Continuing with the Chinese women longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, I find myself faced with a book described by Ōe Kenzaburō as “one of the best ten literary works in the world of the past ten years”. That’s a big claim, so I was intrigued to see what Ōe saw in the novel by the first female president of the Chinese Writers Association.

Spanning the first thirty years of the lives of two sisters, The Bathing Women charts the maturation of Tiao and Fei, sisters of two people banished from Beijing for their naughty ways. But as Tiao and Fei discover, their parent’s marriage is less than happy, and when their mother has an affair, they are upset. But when a child is born from this affair, Tiao and Fei find themselves even more conflicted.

The first thing to say is that the writing is exquisite, no doubt thanks to Hongling Zhang and Jason Sommer’s translation. Tie’s sentences are both decorative and meaningful, straddling that line between purple prose and literary description in an almost perfect manner.

There’s one part of the translation that does intrigue me. Rebels and revolutionaries are termed “hooligans,” a theme that is returned to again and again, though not directly. Instead, Tie gives us the opportunity to examine what it means to be the family of someone who has been branded a revolutionary, someone who is driven to suicide because of the constant watching and insulting.

The most obvious manner in which this is done is Fei’s mother, Teacher Tang, who, in a rather harrowing scene early on in the book, is made to stand in front of an entire primary school, where she is then subjected to what can only be described as mob justice from a whole load of angry teachers egging on impressionable young children. It culminates in her being made to literally eat shit, and though she refuses at first, in the end, she complies. All this because she had a child out of wedlock. That child, Fan, eventually becomes friends with Tiao and Fei, and the impact of her mother’s suicide, and her growing up with her uncle, Dr Tang, seems to be that she becomes something of a wild child, a trait that continues well into her adult life.

Teacher Tang is not the only hooligan in the novel. Tiao and Fei’s own parents, Wu and Yixun, have been banished from Beijing for crimes that are never made explicit, but they are sent to a farm to work, though for some reason, their daughters are not allowed. Instead, they live in an apartment in Fuan, the city nearest the re-education farm, though their solitude does not last long. Their mother, Wu, comes back complaining of dizzy spells, and though the doctor does not find anything physically wrong with her, the two start a relationship that allows her to stay with her daughters in their tiny apartment.

Of course, as with all secret affairs, the consequences are never pretty. When Wu discovers she is pregnant to Dr Tang, she decides to keep the child. For a long time, we are unsure as to whether her husband, Yuxin, actually knows the third daughter is not his, but his behaviour would suggest he fully comprehends the situation. The resentment Tiao and Fei feel toward their mother’s selfish (in their eyes) behaviour is to transfer that hatred to the new child, Quan. This reaches a head one day, when Quan falls into an uncovered manhole in the courtyard of their apartment block, and though the two girls see it happen, they do nothing to stop it. Ostensibly, it is the guilt they feel from these actions that inform the rest of the life choices.

Up to this point, the novel is good, if not great. Sadly, the second half does not live up to the promise of what came before, and comes across as disjointed, both structurally and thematically. We move away from two young girls growing up in the shadow of their mother’s affair to two young women failing to find affairs of their own. I suppose the obvious link between the two sections is the fact that Tiao never had a good female role model growing up, resulting in an inability to form close relationships with men as an adult.

Arguably the largest problem with the second half of the novel is that Fei’s story is skipped over quite quickly, leaving one feeling rather unbalanced. Though we track Tiao’s adult life quite closely, including her two relationships, Fei’s story—that of moving to America to find a better life—is told, not shown, and suffers because of it. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting story—the relationship between the willing migrant and her motherland is rich in questions of identity, family and nationalism, but Tie makes only fleeting attempts to draw these out in a complex manner.

What does make it onto the page, though, is interesting. Fei, leaving China in the hope of finding a better life, turns into one of those people who hates on their homeland while they are away, perhaps to fit in more with the locals, perhaps to cover their insecurity. Her ability to speak English fluently gets her far in America, and she eventually marries an American man, though the relationship is far from happy. When she comes back to China, which she does sporadically throughout her twenties, she finds herself in the strange position of not feeling at home, having immersed herself in the ways of American cultural superiority.

Though Fei seems to reach an uneasy happiness by the end of the novel, Tiao seems just as discontent with her life as she did at the beginning. She remains isolated and alone, unable to connect with anyone else in a meaningful way. The only man she ever loved, the same man who agreed to marry her, has been pushed away by her sense of duty to his first wife, and she chooses a life of romantic solitude.

Ultimately, while I could appreciate the writing, the novel never hit the emotional heights I suppose I wanted from a story that promised to detail the lives of two sisters coming to terms with the fact that they helped cause the death of their younger sibling at a young age. And that first half is very good, detailing fragile relationships between mother and daughters. But the second half fails to deliver what was promised, falling apart into a rambling, meandering mess.

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Sour Sweet (1982) – Timothy MO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ru (2009) – Kim THÚY

This novel caught my eye a while ago for a variety of reasons. A Vietnamese-Canadian writer, Kim Thúy originally wrote this novel in French in 2009, though it was translated into English in 2011. It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012. I’m a big fan of postcolonial writings, and a short novel on the immigrant experience in Canada struck me as something perhaps something similar to that in Australia.

Nguyen An Tinh was a boat person. Escaping persecution in Communist Vietnam, her family escapes to Canada where they try to build a new life, one they never thought they would lead. But An Tinh finds herself floating through life, unable to put down roots, despite having grown up in Canada, and having two young sons. This is her story, the story of a refugee coming to the West, of a young child growing up, of a mother coming to terms with the realities of being a parent.

I read this short novel in under three hours. It’s easy to read, not just because of how it is set out (Many of the sections are less than a page, more memory fragments or musings about life than true ‘chapters’), but because Thúy constructs a tale that is engaging and well-written, stopping short of over-wrought writing. She sprinkles Vietnamese words and text throughout the novel to create that sense of foreignness that seems to be key to writing an “authentic” immigrant experience. Unrelated to the novel itself – my edition had some weird typographical stuff going on, and I’m not sure the publishers are used to using Vietnamese script in their work, because there were some iffy

Plot is not something this novel has in spades. Or at all, really. Instead, it is a series of jumbled up fragments, things that come to the protagonist as she remembers them. She wants to tell her story, but she finds herself sidetracked by other memories – from both before and after her move to Canada – that are at least as interesting as the glimpses of a privileged life in Canada. It’s an interesting point of view to take—so often, refugees are portrayed as the persecuted poor, but in actual fact, here, the protagonist’s family is the bourgeoisie class in Vietnamese society that was so hated by the Communist regime that took power in 1975. Her life is one of privilege—her mother has never had to lift a finger to do any work in her life, but she teachers her children to do some, perhaps because she is aware that the political situation is fragile.

The journey between this life in Vietnam and her adult life is the least developed section of An Tinh’s life. We get glimpses of the perilous boat trip her family took, as well as her eventual, if gradual, integration into Canadian society. There are scenes of An Tinh finding her feet in school, despite not understanding a word of French; of her teacher calling her parents to make sure she wasn’t eating rice and noodles for breakfast, even though this is a standard Vietnamese breakfast. There are hints of past relationships, of her coming to understand what it means to love and be loved.

What strikes me most of all about her character, though, is her intense isolation from the rest of the world. She is no longer Vietnamese, but does not feel Canadian. She is just as happy sleeping in a hotel bed as she is her own. If she didn’t have children, she wouldn’t be afraid of dying. These thoughts highlight her dislocation and disconnect from the world of the everyday. Thúy equates this isolation with the life An Tinh has lived, with the constant movement she has found herself undertaking, both voluntary and involuntary.

The other story that comes out of this novel is An Tinh’s life now. In many ways, it seems to be defined by her relationship with her two sons, Pascal and Henri. The younger of the two has autism, and in many ways, there is a link drawn between An Tinh’s early inability to understand Canadian society as a foreigner with his inability to read and understand social situations. Both are outsiders, and An Tinh finds herself perhaps more protective of him because she understand what it is like to be shunned by the rest of the mainstream.

By the end of the novel, Thúy has found herself in a rhythm that I wish she had adopted the entire way through: one section talks about her life in Canada, while the next subverts this happy image with an flashback to Vietnam on a similar theme. I like the idea of juxtaposing these two lives, each with its own highs and lows, each complimenting the other in terms of happiness and sadness. I don’t have a problem with the tiny, fragmented narrative, but it jumps all over the place thematically, and if she had started doing this earlier, it would have given the novel a much needed sense of cohesion.

The use of first-person lends an air of intimacy and realism to this autobiographical novel, and Thúy has mentioned that this is a form of fictionalised memoir, based on her own experiences of coming to Canada as an immigrant. It’s a story that maybe isn’t heard often enough—the exodus to the West from Vietnam was a formative experience for the countries that embraced these refugees as much as it was for the refugees themselves. There’s an interesting tale to be told here, and Thúy adds to the narrative with her own tale.

It’s deeply unfair of me to compare this work to another, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar this is to Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, another short novel detailing the immigrant story to North America, told in short, alternating chapters. I love that novel, and sadly, Ru didn’t quite reach the heights Otsuka’s work did. While Otsuka manages to tell the story of an entire generation with heart and with depth, Thúy’s novel just falls short of packing the emotional punch a story like this deserves. But, then, perhaps that’s the point—the life contained in Ru suggests a deeper emotional pain than could ever be described.

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