Tag Archives: LGBT

Barracuda (2013) – Christos TSIOLKAS

Very few sports novels are actually about sport, and Barracuda is no exception. Recent discourse in Australian literary circles has focussed on how to better promote the excellent work done by female writers in this country. Barracuda is a slap in the face to this trend—more than any novel I have read recently, this is a novel that interrogates what it means to be a man. How do you go from being a man in your prime, a man perfectly sculpted to take part in the ultimate masculine challenge to man reviled for the very things that make you who you are?

All of this is embodied in Daniel Kelly. Danny is the misfit at his private school—placed there on a sport scholarship, he is hated by his teammates because he is better than then, even though he is poorer, and much less white. But while he is being bullied mercilessly in the classroom, he is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the pool. He is the Barracuda, mercilessly beating everyone that gets in his way. The disconnect between his in-pool and out-of-pool selves is unsurprising, but the vast distance between the two is.

Out of the pool, Danny’s weakness is his crippling self-doubt. and I cannot help but wonder how many other athletes suffer a similar affliction. Danny’s self-worth is so intrinsically tied to how he performs in the pool, he quite literally cannot imagine a life in which he cannot compete with the world’s best. There would be nothing else for him. To see a man try and claw his way back to having any kind of functional self-respect is a fascinating journey, and one Tsiolkas treats with deftness and dignity.

There are, of course, no excuses for what Danny does to his friend (think Nick D’Arcy on a bad night). At that point, he embodies everything that is wrong with Australian sports culture, particularly in respect to way we build up young men (I use that word deliberately) to succeed. And so, in parallel with this story of the Fall is a story of redemption, of a broken man attempting to find himself. The internal has become external as Danny becomes a drifter, floating through the world, trying desperately to find a role for himself in a world that has no time or space for losers.

I always image people who came to Christos Tsiolkas’ work via The Slap get something of a shock when they decide to dip into his earlier work. Loaded, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe are glorious novels, unlike anything else in the Australian canon, but they are intense, in-your-face works that force the reader to re-evaluate a great many of their opinions about contemporary Australia. The big question I wanted answered when I opened Barracuda was this: which way would Tsiolkas go this time? Would he continue the careful examination he began in The Slap of contemporary Australia, or would he return to his wilder youth?

I can’t help but feel that Barracuda is Tsiolkas defanged. There is no question that he is an excellent examiner of the contemporary Australian psyche—indeed, I can think of no other. But Barracuda is another step towards the mainstream. The scenes designed to shock are no longer shocking (particularly the sex scenes, which seem crowbarred in just for shock value), the barbs aimed at upper-middle-class white Australians seem to be just a little bit less sharp.

Barracuda is not Christos Tsiolkas’ best novel. But even when he’s having an off day, he forces us to think. How do we deal with the internal pressures we place on ourselves to satisfy the wants and demands of the many? I think Tsiolkas is ultimately hopeful in this respect: he sees paths of redemption for all of us who have done something terrible, for those of us who struggle to find our place in society.

Oh, and that last chapter? Perfection.

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The City of Devi (2013) – Manil SURI

The recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula remind us that the flashpoints of the future are not in Europe or America—they are in Asia. From North Korean tinpot tyrants to Taliban insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it seems likely that the next major international conflict will come from the developing Asian world. So it’s interesting to see a potential future from an Asian writer.

Mumbai. The city of Devi. A city on the brink. As news of an imminent nuclear attack hits the streets, so too does Sarita. Her husband has been missing for a few days, and she has decided to find him. But someone else is trying to find the same man. Jaz is following Sarita in the hope that she will lead him to Karun. As they weave through the battered streets of Mumbai, though, both begin to realise that bigger problems are looming.

Taking this on board, Suri paints a world where this has happened. Just like Tarun J Tejpal in The Valley of Masks, Suri uses a uniquely Indian context to create speculative fiction to revitalise many of the tired clichés dragged out by other writers. One film which takes the Hindu god Devi and turns her into a modern-day superhero, aptly named Superdevi, has taken India—and the rest of the world—by storm. As the local government in Mumbai decides to use Devi as a symbol of the city—despite the secular nature of said government—the local Muslim population find the use of a Hindu symbol to represent them less than ideal. Egged on by extremists in Pakistan and anti-democracy protestors in China, violence rapidly erupts, a road that once taken can’t be unmade.

Mumbai, then, is transformed into a city teetering on the brink of complete annihilation. As the purported deadline for Pakistan’s impending nuclear attack comes closer and closer, people begin to act more irrationally. Bombs and violence become an almost daily certainty, so by the time we as readers arrive on the scene, Sarita finds herself hiding in the bomb shelter of a hospital. People are terrified—though the internet is no longer working, word of mouth has spread rumours that  Pakistan is planning on dropping a nuclear bomb on Mumbai in the next three days. Needless to say, people are nervous, and even in the small confined space of a bomb shelter, Muslims are being hunted down by Hindus. And how do you know when you find a Muslim? Same way you can tell someone is Jewish.

Unbeknownst to Sarita, Jaz, our other narrator, is also present. But Sarita has more pressing concerns—she thinks she knows where Karun is, and begins to run through the desolate streets of Mumbai to find him. As she runs, we get flashbacks to the beginning of Sarita and Karun’s relationship. Both in their early thirties, their families willing them on to find someone to settle down with, they find themselves actually falling in love. But Sarita feels that Karun is holding something back, particularly when they try to consummate their relationship. Even after they marry, it takes Sarita a lot of time to get Karun to perform sexually. She feels that something is holding him back, but she can’t work out what it is.

When we shift to Jaz’s perspective, everything crystallises. Karun’s secret is hardly surprising—anyone with half a brain can guess he’s having an affair with a man from about 30 pages in. So it’s kind of frustrating that it isn’t confirmed by Jaz until almost 100 pages later. It makes Sarita come off as less than the naïvely-in-love woman she is supposed to be, and more of an idiot. Though perhaps this is an Indian thing? I know the Indian take on homosexuality is not the most positive or prominent, so perhaps this more like the case of the 1950s housewife being genuinely surprised that her husband like dudes.

The treatment of sexuality in India—particularly in Muslim communities—adds another dimension to the novel. Suri paints the isolation and persecution faced by gay men in India well, and Jaz’s coming to terms with his own sexuality is made simpler by the fact that he is brought up in Europe, where attitudes are a little more liberal. His transformation from sex-crazed teenager forced to skulk in parks to find partners to a man in love and in a mature relationship is nicely realised, and really makes you feel for Jaz. Having found someone to love in a society that frowns upon it is hard, and the fact that Karun is skittish about the whole thing makes it seem even more unfair.

No doubt Cory Bernardi would be unimpressed by the ending of this novel. As signposted fairly early on, Suri presents us with a future that does not rely on contemporary ideals of family and relationships. Karun becomes the centre of a relationship between three people, with him in the middle—literally and figuratively. Haring back to the alternative Hindu holy trinity presented at the beginning of the novel, Suri suggests that each of us needs not just one other person in our lives, but two, to provide a more balanced approach to life. It’s an interesting idea that actually qorks quite well in this context.

Perhaps the most important job of a speculative fiction writer is to make sure that the world they create never becomes too unbelievable. It’s a fine line, and only occasionally does Suri falter. There are one or two moments where Suri has to write his way out of dead-ends he has written himself into. But for the most part, this is an excellent post-apocalyptic novel with an arguably more realistic take on potential future conflicts.

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Confessions of a Mask (1949) – MISHIMA Yukio

I’ve been scouring my uni’s library for hard-to-find books in the last few weeks, since tomorrow, I will no longer live in the same city. I’ve been particularly interested in finding old Japanese stuff that is no longer easily available in English translation. One work in particular that has fascinated me is Mishima Yukio’s Confessions of a Mask, one of his earliest novels, and still the earliest to be found in English translation.

This is the story of Kochan, a young man growing up in war-time Japan, a background that affects everything he does. As he grows up, though, he begins to realise that he is not like the other boys at his school. He is attracted to them. As he tries to hide his secret, he is also drawn to the masculinity and power of the boys he is surrounded by, particularly as they all move toward a war-footing.

Separating the life and the work of authors is not always easy. The work of Mishima Yukio falls into the “impossible” category. So much commentary about him is not about his life and work as an author, but about his politics, his friendship with Ishihara Shintarō, and of course, his rather public suicide in 1970. An entire industry of criticism and journalism has sprung out of these, admittedly rather fertile, distractions—something that makes me wonder if people know him more for this as opposed to his literary work.

Some might find this distracting. Certainly, for many of his works, attempts to link his work with his life is a futile attempt to spice things up. But there are some works, including this one, that do provide an insight into the mind of one of the most enduring literary talents Japan has ever produced. What interests me most about Mishima’s oeuvre are the works that deal with gender and sexuality.

To say that sexuality doesn’t define someone seems faintly ridiculous. Though it may not be the defining factor of someone’s personality, the reaction to one’s sexuality from those surrounding will affect how you behave. That is, of course, the point of the title—the eponymous mask is the personality Kochan constructs to deal with mainstream society, so he can pass as a ‘normal’ person. It’s probably not a stretch to suggest, then, that Kochan is an author surrogate, a character designed to act as the author for the purposes of the work.

Confessions of a Mask reads like an autobiography. The story of a young man growing up in wartime Japan, trying to come to terms with the fact that he is sexually attracted to the same sex—it’s easy to see where Mishima got his ideas from. This is the perfect example of the shishōsetsu (私小説), or autobiographical novel, a genre that, in many ways, defines 20th century Japanese literature. Using his own experiences and feelings about his young life, the 24-year-old hijacks a form that, for so long, had been used by the Japanese equivalent of straight white men to break into the literary world. I can only imagine the reaction to a book like this in conservative post-war Japan.

While it is not explicit, it is certainly erotic. Mishima describes with such love, such lust, the form of the young boys he finds himself attracted to. He seems particularly attracted to armpits (no, I don’t get it either, but hey—that’s what fetishes are all about), going out of his way to describe this particular boy part both often and in detail.

At first, he is not attracted per se to the physicality of men, but to the idea of the noble prince, of the man who rides in at the last minute and save the damsel in distress. He finds even more fascinating the noble knight who dies in battle for the person he loves. I don’t want to call this an obsession with chivalry, because I think it mistakes what attracts Kochan to these men. It is not the fact that they are saving a woman, but the fact that they are dying in a glorious manner, that attracts Kochan to these knights. Of course, a violent and bloody sacrifice is what Mishima will eventually be known for, but even if you read his other works (including a blisteringly excellent novella called Patriotism)

Kochan, then, hates himself not just because of these confused feelings he has for his male classmates, but also because he, physically, does not look anything like them, and thinks he never will. He was a sickly child, leading to something of a stunted physical development, and he is often sick from school, his grandmother not letting him out of the house. There is a surprising amount of self-hate though this novel, not perhaps in an overtly stated manner, but in the way he constantly compares himself to the men he finds attractive, and always coming up short.

The misogyny that would come to define Mishima’s later work, including his other major gay novel, Forbidden Colours, is not as present in this early work, but his relationship with women remains problematic. Much of the latter third of the novel is taken up with his relationship with a girl—Sonoko—who he thinks he loves, only to find his sexuality getting in the way of a true relationship. Perhaps, then, he is not so different from every other gay teen in the world, trying to force something that just isn’t there in the hope of overcoming something that can often be seen as deviant or strange.

A 1000-word blog review cannot get into the depths of complexity that present themselves in Mishima’s second novel. Confessions of a Mask really is a key text – if not in understanding Japanese literature, then at the very least, understanding Mishima and the way he approaches so many things. There are three important things I would suggest need to be taken out of this novel: Mishima’s self-hatred at his own sexuality; his obsession with the male body; and his dismissal of women. Understand these, and you might close to understanding a sizeable and complex body of work.

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Wulf (2011) – Hamish CLAYTON

I picked this up earlier in the year while I was in New Zealand in a rather excellent independent bookshop called Unity Books. I was looking for some new New Zealand fiction, and this struck me as something quite interesting.

A ship filled with a rather ragged collection of sailors and merchants has come to New Zealand to seek trade with Te Rauparaha, a man widely believed to control much of the southern part of the North Island. Aboard the ship are two sailors who will rapidly become caught up in historical events well out of their control, as Te Rauparaha – the Wolf – has plans of his own for the new visitors. Plans that will have far-reaching consequences for the future of New Zealand.

Maybe I’m reading things into the text that don’t really exist, but I like to think there’s a subtle hint of homo-eroticism between our two narrators. Our narrator of the present is deeply attracted to Cowell, our narrator of the past, though his feelings seem to be confused. It’s an interesting point – there’s a scene early on in which he masturbates in the river, only for the whole thing to be reversed, and all of a sudden, he’s watching Cowell do the same thing. As a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of a native knowledge of New Zealand, it’s hard to tell whether the narrator is actually gay, or if he is simply misplacing his own longing to understand New Zealand, transferring it to the closest available symbol.

Look, it’s probably a little clichéd to say this, but Clayton really does make the landscape of New Zealand a character in this novel. Just like Rohan Wilson did for the landscape of Tasmania, Clayton evokes in the reader a series of images and sketches of the southern tip of the North Island (a place I have been, so that helped), told from the perspective of an outsider. That sense of wonder and confusion anyone gets when exploring the bush of a new land—trees that don’t look right, animals that seem bizarre, stars in the wrong place—is something captured by Clayton perfectly.

Attached to this evocation of landscape is the folkloric history of Te Rauparaha. It is gorgeously retold by Cowell, who clearly has the ability to tell a great story. From the language and tone of his stories, it is clear Cowell has a great deal of respect for the Wolf . There is a deliberate sense of the romantic hero about him—by tying the story to the conventions and practices of heroic poetry from the Western tradition, Clayton gives a sense of the epic to his readers. Instead of using Māori structures and traditions, I wonder if, by using Western constructions to describe a great Māori warrior, we, as white readers, get a greater sense of legitimacy from it. It’s that age-old question about whether oral history has any value, and Clayton neatly offers something of an alternative here.

In contrast to the mysterious and enigmatic Cowell, our other narrator fares less well on the character development front, though I rather suspect that’s the point. He is never named – though at one stage, he gets the unfortunate nickname David Jones – allowing us as readers to project something of ourselves onto him. He remains the ultimate everyman in this situation – he is new to sailing, has little experience of going to foreign lands, and is, in many ways, scared of what is going to around him. Indeed, he is so worried about one expedition, he stays behind without telling the rest of the crew. Of course, this turns out to be the sensible option, but his cowardly acts are, in many ways, completely understandable – at least to me.

I don’t want to call Wulf “experimental” literature, but I do want to point out its uniqueness. There is a quality to Clayton’s writing that often seems unreal, a tone that strongly supports the heavy mythology he has used to build the novel. Lloyd Jones (who’s quoted on the cover) is right – the real strength of this novel is its “imaginative derring-do”. There’s a lot to love from this little New Zealand novel – I hope it gets more recognition from some bigger markets.

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The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay (2000) – Michael CHABON

I have a great deal of respect for the person Michael Chabon, born mainly out of the fact that he understands the importance of genre fiction, and the role it should play in more mainstream literary fiction. Also, he’s a fan of Doctor Who, which clearly makes him a person of discerning taste. I picked up Kavalier and Clay because it was his Pulitzer Prize winner, and because I needed a big book to take on holiday. It didn’t last the week.

It is 1939, and war is about to break out in Europe. Josef Kavalier has escaped Prague, and ended up in the bedroom of his American cousin, Sam Klayman. Both are trying to escape their lives – Joe, from the terrible state of his home, and Sam, from feelings he cannot quite describe. They pour their insecurities into the Escapist – a comic book that turns into a international phenomenon. But all good things must come to an end, and World War Two is marching ever closer.

Comic books are not just used for set decoration here, or simply as a way of pandering to a new kind of audience, though Chabon has a blinder of an idea in the Escapist. There’s a chapter explaining the entire origin story of him, and it’s one of the best pieces of writing you’re likely to find. Like all good superheroes (well, the ones I connect with), it’s the story of a simple man who has been wronged, and is simply looking for ways to right the wrongs of the world. Like Batman, the Escapist is not a superhero in the sense that he has special powers, rather more a glorified vigilante with a score to settle.

Chabon uses the idea of speculative fiction, and the escapes it can provide for people who feel trapped in their own humdrum lives, as a way of exploring these two characters’ deepest hopes and fears, of how they view themselves, and how others view them. Joe’s background in magic and escapology provide perhaps the perfect jumping off point for these ideas. Despite his having escaped the war, it is his constant struggle to get his brother, Thomas, over to America that provides his raison d’être. And so, in his comics, the Escapist is the man who can free anyone from any kind of tyranny. Of course, for Joe, that will almost always be the Nazi extermination of the Jews – his first attempt at a cover for the comic is the Escapist punching Hitler squarely on the jaw. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said for Joe’s motivations.

For a long time, Sam is a lot harder to work out. He seems like a typical New York kid, enthusiastic, excitable and clearly full of talent, though not for drawing. His imagination is something to marvel at, and the fact that he is able to come up with storyline upon storyline for the comic books his team writes is something to marvel at. Slowly, though, it becomes clear that there is a through line in all of these – every hero needs a sidekick, a plucky young man to help with the day to day life of being a caped crusader. Whether this is because of his repressed sexuality or some kind of deep seeded inferiority complex is never truly answered, though some not very nice people have a red hot go at portraying it as something rather immoral.

Unless you’re reading a Sarah Waters novel, it seems inevitable that gay relationships in historical fiction are doomed to fail. (I know, I’ve just linked you to TVtropes, and yes, you will be spending the next hour of your life surfing it). I don’t really think this is lazy writing on anyone’s behalf, but it has become such a cliche that it takes a good writer to make sure it doesn’t seem silly and tired. Fortunately, Chabon manages to just about get away with it, mainly because the pay off at the end of the novel is worth it. Sam’s relationship with Tracy is beautiful to watch unfold, and they really are an adorable couple. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the way in which it does is not fatal, but certainly final.

When Joe realises what Sam has given up, and why he has, it really highlights the love these two men have for each other. In a brotherly way, of course. In many ways, it’s difficult to decide which of the two men have sacrificed more in their lives. Joe has left his family behind in a war torn continent, but his own escaping to the war somehow balances it out. No matter what people say about sexuality not defining a person, Sam has given up his only path to happiness in order to fix the problem Joe has created. He denies his own desires for the sake of the woman and son Joe leaves behind in order to exact revenge on the faceless enemy that stole his brother. It’s all very tragic, and really, really depressing.

There’s even a little bit of comic book history, and though I’m not as well versed in it as, say, the history of television science fiction, I know enough to really appreciate that Chabon is clearly quite fond of the medium. Throughout the decades of the twentieth century, the Escapist is used by various people as a superhero of the time. Like all good ideas, he is constantly reinventable (yep, that’s definitely a word), and the forms he takes on are well thought out. The end of the novel highlights just how far the medium has come since those humble days in the 1930s: the book that Joe and Sam are working on is clearly symbolising the birth of the adult graphic novel, an artform that is still not viewed with the proper respect that it perhaps deserves.

As a final note, I did spend a lot of time as I was reading wishing I could read the adventures of the Escapist, because he just sounds so damn cool. And lo and behold, my wishes were answered! Chabon has worked with Dark Horse to bring the Escapist to the page. I’m off to go and check it out – I’m intrigued.

This is not a heavy or difficult read, despite its length. But it is excellent. Not “just” a story about superheroes, it is an insightful and intimate portrayal of two men dealing with their own shortcomings and failures, and finding ways to escape them. And if that’s not the most human thing you can do, I don’t know what is.

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The Uncle’s Story (2000) – Witi IHIMAERA

Like the good person I am, on my recent jaunt over the ditch (to New Zealand, for those playing overseas), I sought out some good bookshops. Partially because I’m a book whore, but mainly because the book I took wasn’t nearly long enough. I managed to get some good advice about New Zealand literature from this rather wonderful second hand bookstore in Wellington. Check it out if you get a chance.

Michael chooses perhaps the most inopportune moment to come out to his Maori family – the week before his sister’s wedding. Doing so unleashes a chain of events in his own life that see both his family and partner reject him. But then, his aunt comes to him with a bundle of notes from his uncle – an uncle he never knew existed. An uncle that fought in Vietnam. An uncle carrying a secret not unlike the one Michael has just shared with his family.

This is, essentially, two novels that have collided to form one. The first is the modern coming out tale of a young Maori man in contemporary New Zealand, trying to find his way in a world dominated by white gays, and how he can reconcile is own sexuality in a Maori context, and how he can still be a Maori in a gay context. It’s a good question, and not one with an easy answer. Ihimaera, for the most part, stays away from any kind of moral preaching, though his ending implies he is optimistic about young gay Maoris. Michael’s best friend, a young women who sounds like a walking advertisement for militant feminism, occasionally comes off as ridiculous, but this is mostly undercut by her position as a Maori woman trying to fight her way in a white man’s world, and the realisation that maybe this is the only way she can be taken seriously.

It is Sam’s story, the uncle’s story, that Ihimaera seems more concerned with, and this shows in the novel’s construction. Perhaps simply because I, too, was more invested in this half, but it felt more real, perhaps, certainly I think it takes up more page space than the contemporary narrative strand. Sam falls in love with an American fighter pilot – Cliff Harper – and despite slight reluctance from Sam’s side, their relationship eventually becomes physical. It is a relationship that, in today’s terms, is nothing but homosexual, but in pre sexual revolution terms, the two men don’t seek to label it. Both have had women in the past, and perhaps because of the intensely emotional situation in which they find themselves, they have fallen in love, both emotionally and physically. Of course, the fact that Cliff is willing to follow Sam to New Zealand to meet the parents suggests this is more than just a short but intense burst of gay, but whether either

There is an inevitability to Sam’s fate – partially because it’s been foreshadowed, and partially because it seems that there is only one way out of the cycle of abuse perpetuated by his father. What was surprising, though, was the brutality and physicality of it all. Look away if you don’t want to know what happens. When Sam’s father, Arapeta, a highly respected Maori elder, and a man who seems to take great pleasure in breaking the spirit of his own children, discovers that his oldest son likes boys, let’s just say the phrase “he loses his shit” is not even vaguely appropriate. In a deeply disturbing display of masculine strength, he whips Sam until he lies bleeding on the ground, and then in perhaps the most confronting thing I’ve read in a while, urinates on his own son. It’s shocking, brutal and appalling, and really hammers home just how not ok Maori culture is with homosexuality.

Masculinity is at the heart of this novel – and at the heart of that is the the father/son relationship. Sam and Arapeta’s relationship is disturbingly dysfunctional, though in Sam’s defence, it is clear that Arapeta is a raving loony. His inability to interact with anyone outside his circle of army friends is worrying. The fact that he has broken his wife’s spirit, and is doing his best to break the spirit of his eldest son, highlights the twisted way he seems to view love. His youngest son, Michael’s father, at first seems to have similar problems dealing with his own son’s sexuality. Though, as he begin to understand the household in which he grew up, and the way in which Sam’s “abomination” was viewed, one can perhaps be a little more forgiving. Perhaps with some intense reeducation, he’ll get there. For Arapeta, though, there seems to be no hope. Too deeply wrapped up in ensuring the family line stays intact, and ensuring Maori tradition is followed to the letter, he is blinded to the fact that his oldest son is, fundamentally, a good person.

I did a course about Indigenous Australians at uni last year, and one of the questions that kept coming up was whether “traditional” Indigenous culture could survive in a contemporary, multicultural Australian setting. The corollary to this, of course, is whether this is an important question. Should we be trying to preserve Indigenous culture in some kind of vacuum, not allowing it to interact and change, just as all other cultures do over time? This was the question I kept coming back to again and again reading The Uncle’s Story. How can we, as liberal (very much with a small L) social democrats, dedicated to encouraging equality for all, simply accept that – in this case, Maori – culture dictates that it is ok to ostracise someone because they happen to be gay, all in the name of “traditional culture”?

The lessons contained in this novel are universal. Though they evoke a specific culture in a particular time and place, they are also a warning against tradition for the sake of tradition. The optimistic ending sees Maori culture taking a step towards the contemporary, and highlights the one universal constant – cultures and values are constantly changing, and one mustn’t be afraid of this. The Uncle’s Story is a story of past mistakes, and offers a way forward.

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The Stranger’s Child (2011) – Alan HOLLINGHURST

Alan Hollinghurst is not someone I would describe as a fast writer. His last novel, The Line of Beauty, came out in 2004, and beat Cloud Atlas – one of my most favouritest novels – in winning the Man Booker Prize that year. Unsurprisingly, this brick of a book was a favourite to win the Booker this year, and with good reason. I have no idea why it didn’t make the shortlist. While The Line of Beauty life me somewhat cold, this novel is truly excellent.

George Sawle has brought his friend from Cambridge, Cecil Valance, to the family house for the weekend. While here, Cecil writes a poem that, taken completely out of context, becomes one of the most loved British poems of the twentieth century. Following the ripples this poem causes throughout this century, we discover a world of lost opportunities, of lost love, and of

The first section is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Hollinghurst’s slightly formal, very controlled, deeply English way of writing is perfectly suited to the Edwardian era, and building this first section around a summer garden party, complete with upper-class English people, gin and tonic, and sneaky make-out sessions in the grounds, is just perfect. Perhaps I’m just projecting my ideal image of “England”, but there is something here that really draws you in. George and Cecil’s attempts to, well, have some alone time while putting on a respectable front are funny, and Daphne’s attempts to get Cecil to take an interest in her – coupled with her complete obliviousness to the fact that, actually, she probably isn’t his type – are also nicely played. Indeed, the fact that no one seems to notice that George and Cecil are making out at every available moment is well done, particularly reading it from our perspective.

The friendship – well, relationship – between George and Cecil is pitch perfect, too. Cecil, so cocksure (no pun intended) is having far more fun that George, who clearly worships the ground Cecil walks on, to the extent that he doesn’t really see that Cecil is sometimes a bit of a pompous, self-important arse. George’s sister Daphne, too, is crushing on Cecil, though the fact that she is several years younger than him means he treats this as little more than a simple schoolgirl infatuation. Indeed, the poem for which he will be come famous, Two Acres, is intended as a love poem for George. The central, cruel irony of this novel, though, is that no one but George can ever know this.

Hollinghurst is uncompromising in his desire to focus on the small character pieces. Despite starting in the 1920s, and finishing in 2008, the important parts of the centre take place off screen, as it were. Instead, we deal with the ramifications of these important events with the main characters, away from the action, both physically and temporally. And as time goes by, new characters are introduced, and old characters are left behind. By the end, our only constant companion is Daphne Sawle, though even she becomes more tangential as the years go by. More than Daphne, this novel revolves around Cecil – even though he only physically appears in the first section. Somewhat like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the latter parts of the novel deal with literary criticism, and historiography, and whether those of us left behind can ever truly work out what was going on in the minds of authors from long ago.

For those who are expecting the sensuality and physicality of Hollinghurst’s earlier works, you may be somewhat disappointed. There are no full-on scenes of man on man action – this time, he prefers to leave much of it unsaid. Indirectly, though, this is also a novel about the gay history of England. From the secret, furtive relationship between George and Cecil, to a relationship in the 1960s, cut in half by the revocation of the law criminalising homosexuality, to the final scene of a funeral for the husband of a gay man, Hollinghurst manages to remind us just how far the gay rights movement has brought us in just under one hundred years.

There’s so much going on in this novel, and I’ve barely touched on most of it here. Suffice to say, I very much enjoyed it. From the garden parties, to the boarding schools, Hollinghurst evokes an almost clichéd England. By populating it with characters who mean something, and feel something, though, he manages to make this one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

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Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) – Haruki MURAKAMI

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84, is being released in English translation later this year, and I’m quite keen to read it. As such, I’m trying to catch up on some of his older stuff, since I’m woefully under-read when it comes to the most famous contemporary Japanese novelist. Sputnik Sweetheart is a shorter Murakami novel, which appeals to me, partly because it’s term time, and I don’t want a giant brick of a novel, and partially because Murakami’s big novels tend to leave me cold.

K and Sumire are friends from university, though Sumire never finished her degree. Drifting through life, unsure of what she really wants to do other than be a famous writer, she meets Miu at a wedding, and suddenly realises she is in love. With another woman. Willing to do anything this woman wants, she travels with her to Europe on a business trip, ending up on a small Greek island. It is not until K receives a call from Miu late one night that he realises what a mistake this might have been.

Taking his characters out of Japan seems like a good idea. There’s something to be said for Murakami’s preoccupation with people being sidelined from mainstream Japanese society, but to have them then be sidelined from other parts of the world, too, reveals a much deeper sense of isolation and loneliness than simply being a social misfit in a far too rigid social structure. Rather than simply being another of Murakami’s lonely, quirky Japanese women, Sumire begins to take on a deeper level – Miu’s rejection of her, even on the other side of the world, away from Japanese society, is another realisation that she may never have a true relationship with anyone.

Either I’m reading way too much into this, or perhaps my mind simply works in weird ways, but was I the only one to think that the Greek island they all end up on is Lesbos? Close to the Turkish landmass? Tick. Somewhat undeveloped? Tick. Link to lesbians, all over the world? Tick. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything else – it just came to me while I was reading, and I wanted to know what other people thought.

Our narrator, too, will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever read any other Murakami work – a young man, somewhat isolated from the rest of society, unable to fully function. This time, though, he’s a primary school teacher, having an affair with the mother of one of his students. Professional, I know. This, of course, sets up a chance for K to teach the lessons he’s learned from his experienced in Greece (that you will always be lonely in life, and that love is always fleeting) to a young, fatherless child.Perhaps not the best message to be telling small children, though – that you’ll be alone your entire life, and that everyone you ever love will leave you.

There’s a particularly excellent sequence near the end of the novel, where Miu is explaining her reticence when it comes to matters of intimacy. Essentially, she recounts an out of body experience, and watches herself have sex with a man, which understandably makes her uncomfortable. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the whole thing reads like a very uncomfortable rape scene, and Murakami pitches it perfectly. Honestly, you could rip out that chapter and turn it into a short story, and it would be brilliant by itself.

I’ve always thought that Murakami’s short stories are better than his longer novels. Fortunately, Sputnik Sweetheart is perfectly a perfectly formed short novel that manages to bring together all of the tropes we have come to expect from Murakami’s work, while never outstaying its welcome. If you’re inclined to start reading Murakami, perhaps here’s a good place to start – an easing in to his magical realist style, without the baggage of a giant, sprawling novel that has too many characters to keep track of.

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Forbidden Colours (1953) – Yukio MISHIMA

Mishima is one of the big names in post-war Japanese fiction. I’ve read him before, but was left cold, feeling that he tends more towards philosophy than literature, if that makes sense. But as a person, he continues to fascinate me – particularly the tension in his life between his hard right-wing views, and his sexuality. I’m also impressed that one of the great post-war novelists in Japan is gay, so finding one of his novels that deals with this head-on, I had to give it a go.

When an old writer, Shunsuké Hinoki, discovers the young girl he’s having an affair with at the beach with a beautiful young man, he is not angry. On the contrary, he sees this as an opportunity to destroy the lives of the women in his life who have wronged him. And so using the young man, Yuichi, he begins to plot his revenge. As with the best laid plans, however, things begin to go wrong.

Since reading this post, I’ve been trying to think more about how women are represented in fiction, both by women who write, and by men who write. It’s something of a slap to the face, then, to read a novel that seems to hate women so much. The essential philosophy behind Mishima’s work is that, because gay men have no need for women, they are simply objects to be hated. Shunsuké’s hatred of women, in particular, is deeply ingrained, and deeply unpleasant. This is a man who has been married three times, but in reality, his view of women is that they can only ever be mothers, and since that is not something he has any interest in, there is no point to their existence. Then, the conscious decision to come up with an elaborate plan to cause pain to those women who have wronged him by making them fall in love with a beautiful young gay man, is pretty harsh.

And once Shunsuké gets his hands on Yuichi, the whole thing just gets worse. Perhaps I’m just optimistic, but I don’t think Yuichi necessarily hated women before he met Shunsuké, who essentially moulds Yuichi into what he wished he was when he was 21. At first, he comes off as young and naive, though this seems to be more to do with the fact that he thinks he is the only one attracted to men in this way. Once he begins to immerse himself in the Tokyo gay scene, however, he realises that he is far from alone. Far more importantly, though, he discovers that he is beautiful. Once he realises the power of his own beauty, he is able to turn the tables on everyone around him, particularly Shunsuké. He begins to do things without consulting Shunsuké, and even though they spend much of the novel apart, their relationship is what opens and closes this tale. Because, of course, Shunsuké is in love with Yuichi, though can never bring himself to do anything about it, for fear of being looked upon as old and ugly, something he considers himself to be.

There is other evidence to suggest that Yuichi may have been deeply influenced by Shunsuké. There are moments, small ones granted, scattered throughout the novel that suggest he truly loves his wife. Yasuko tends towards the shy, retiring wallflower cliché, but seems nice enough. And while Yuichi marries her out of familial duty more than anything else, he does fight off a would-be attacker at one stage, and does seem to enjoy the occasional cuddle with his legal wife.

The woman that provides the most interest here, though, is Mrs Kaburagi, an older woman who is renowned for her extra-marital affairs. Her relationship with her husband is fascinating, and though they seem to have an acceptable marriage to the general public, their dysfunction at home is fascinating in its banality. Her decision to have these affairs is born out out of the fact that she hasn’t slept with her husband in decades – his secret is, in the context of the novel, not particularly unexpected, though I was still taken aback.

Many of the characters may be disgusting, but they make sense. They are well drawn, and while you don’t necessarily feel sorry for them, you do glimpse an insight into their lives, and ways of thinking. How much of Mishima is in Shunsuké will no doubt keep academics arguing for eternity, though there are clear differences. This is one of his earlier novels, so perhaps he was worried that he would end up like Shunsuké. He (Mishima) is clearly ill at ease with the entire gay scene/culture, and while I wouldn’t say it was anti-gay, it certainly doesn’t portray the life of a gay man as a bed of roses.

And yet, despite all of this relentless negativity, this is a highly readable, and fascinating work. You certainly don’t come out the other end without being emotionally drained. Mishima manages to keep the philosophy as integral to the plot and characters, making this a surprisingly cohesive text. This is the work of a genius, and while it will make you uncomfortable, you should definitely read it.

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The Corrections (2001) – Jonathan FRANZEN

You may be surprised to learn that, at work, we are still selling several copies of Franzen’s new(ish) novel, Freedom, every week. Cheers, Oprah. But then someone gave me The Corrections for Christmas last year (which was, yes, a very long time ago), a nice gesture because so many people talk about how wonderful and seminal it is, I really did want to read it to see what all the fuss was about.

The Lambert children have been scattered across America. Gary has a family of his own now, with three sons – though he’s been feeling depressed lately. Chip’s just had an unfortunate incident at work, having been fired from the university courtesy of a slight incident with a freshman. And Denise, a chef extraordinaire, has a secret that will keep the rest of the family guessing. Their mother, though, wants one last Christmas at home, as a family – though getting this wish may be more trouble than it’s worth.

For a long time, I felt very uncomfortable reading this novel. There’s something offputting about the tone that doesn’t quite fit right. You never really know whether to laugh or cringe at what is happening to these characters, as well as the way they react to them. It’s not until the final pages of the book when Franzen lets you in on a secret, when one of the characters remarks that their plight is simply “tragedy rewritten as a farce”. And suddenly, the whole novel makes complete sense. I think it’s probably an instinctive move for someone to think – oh no, Alzheimer’s, secret lesbianism, depression, awkward sex scenes – I must make this the most depressing “important” novel of all time. And Franzen turns all of that on its head, and basically gives it the finger by turning it into high farce. In the hands of a lesser author, I suspect this would come off as uncaring and a bit insulting. But Franzen manages to undercut the humour with just enough depth that the whole thing holds together really well.

Alfred is arguably the centre of most of this comedy, though that could just be because I’m not very sympathetic. Much of his section is given to his (hilarious) hallucinations, where he is haunted by poop. Yep. Franzen manages to take it to the point where we don’t worry about his mental state, because he is simply providing us with comedy gold. Of course, as the novel goes on, we begin to understand that this is just one symptom of Alfred’s descent into insanity, though he has managed to hide it pretty well by using stock phrases every time someone asks him a question. It’s not really until the final pages of the novel that we finally get a glimpse into his functioning mind, though I’m not going to tell you what that is. Suffice it say, it’s the most touching part of the tome.

And despite the comedic tone, most of it holds together in terms of realism. It’s very easy to imagine these events happening – Chip’s accidental affair with the young girl, for example (a story we’ve all heard so often it borders on the cliché), is perfectly realised. Gary’s fractious relationship with his maddeningly modern wife (her refusal to discipline her children is so very frustrating), and his spiralling into depression seems apt. Most of all, though, is Denise’s realisation that she likes women, and the chaos that this causes. The only thing I would say is that the Lithuania sequence (yes, you read correctly) is a step too far. I suspect the whole thing could be cut, replaced with something else, and the novel may have felt tighter. Or less ridiculous.

At one stage or another, each of the five main characters comes off as deeply, deeply unlikeable – particularly Gary and Chip. I should point out, though, that I found Enid to be the most annoying character, almost without any saving grace. This doesn’t mean to say I don’t understand where she’s coming from – an older woman desperately deluding herself that her husband isn’t going mad, trying to cling onto her children in the hope that they might provide her with some comfort – but it really, really frustrated me. Again – maybe I’m just not very sympathetic.

If there’s one thing that causes The Corrections some problems, it is that it’s very full of itself. This is a very good novel – and Franzen knows it. In many ways, a lot of this novel seems to be Franzen showing off. Bam – have some quirky English lecturer who sleeps with a student. Bam – have a closeted lesbian. Bam – have some Eastern Europe. He seems to be trying very, very hard to be cool. Though, in his defence, it kind of works.

I’ve barely touched on half the themes and ideas in this book. This is a big book, and its canvas is even bigger, but at its heart, it’s a story about an American family. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so American. This book wears America on its sleeve, from its characters, to its location, to its philosophy. That combination of America and cool manages to make this book quite readable, though at the same time, a rather damning indictment on the state of the modern family.

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