Tag Archives: love

Happy Valley (1939) – Patrick WHITE

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

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

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

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

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

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Chasing the King of Hearts (2006) – Hanna KRALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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