Tag Archives: violence

Booker Prize 2015: American Families

I’ve already done one post about families, but it really is such an important part of fiction that I find myself here again. This time, though, I’m going by culture: this is all about the modern American family and how two very different authors view these relationships.

Bill Clegg has a history as a literary agent, but Did you ever have a family is his first attempt at writing fiction. Set in a small town, it looks at how one event changes the lives not just of one family, but several.

The characters themselves weave a tangled web: Lolly and Will are about to be married, when the house in which they are staying in their hometown goes up in smoke. Racked by guilt and depression, Lolly’s mother June is also mourning the loss of her partner, Luke, who is being blamed for the blaze. Meanwhile, Luke’s mother Lydia is also coming to terms with the loss of her son, while also being stalked by Silas, the teenager who was first on the scene of the house.

It’s a dense set of relationships to get your head around—particularly in such a short book—and it takes some time for them to all come into focus. The novel shifts around fairly quickly, moving not only from character to character, but also to past and present, and sometimes future. Slowly, as these people resolve into something more than shapes in fog, we see the full tragedy.

These people were already broken: June’s relationship with her daughter was fraught ever since she found love with Luke, a man the same age as Lolly, and a former convict. Luke, meanwhile, had finally found meaning in his life after being cut free by Lydia, a single mother left with a son that no one wanted, who was trying to find a sense of belonging in her own life. The cruel irony of this novel is that just as these people have found each other to begin the process of creating a new family, their lives are ripped apart, and once more scattered to the winds.

The twist, such as it is, is literally signposted from the first page, so if you’re expecting huge revelations at the end of this experience, prepare to be disappointed. Perhaps like so many things in our lives, there is no meaning behind such seismic events—just a mistake made by a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Clegg doesn’t seem to be interested in shocking or aweing us into submission: Did you ever have a family is a surprisingly small-scale story that, while anything by optimistic throughout, does seem to end on a hopeful note, that people can actually get past, or at least come to terms with, horrific events.

A spool of blue thread, by Anne Tyler, is an altogether lighter affair. Though she’s been around forever, I’ve never read any of Tyler’s other works, but it certainly seems that this one is emblematic of her wider oeuvre, tending towards the cute and the cosy as opposed to anything too heavy.

The question, then, is whether this approach works. Clearly some of this will be down to personal preference, but if, as an author, you are keeping things light, you have to be very good to prosecute cases about relationships—and humanity—without it seeming cloying or twee.

For the most part, Tyler pulls this off, and her soft tale of the Whitshank family is certainly engaging. Even though she does deal with some pretty heavy topics—including accidental kidnapping and parental death—at no stage are you overwhelmed by the weight of these themes that, in the hands of others, could be too much.

The Whitshank family is well drawn: the father, Red, is a typical old man, hard of hearing, and good with his hands. His wife, Abby, is a recovering 1960s hippie, still prone to random acts of kindness towards strangers, and still slightly overbearing in the eyes of her children. Those children (Denny, Mandy, Jeannie and Stem) have grown up, and while three of them are biologically Whitshanks, the last—Stem—is the result of what can legally be described as an accidental kidnapping. It’s a weird moment, but Tyler uses it to remind us that family is not just those people who are born to and around us, but the people who choose to live with and call our own.

The limitations of this style are perhaps most keenly felt in this relationship between Denny and Stem. The two have an uneasy relationship: as a child, Denny resented Stem for coming into their house and instantly becoming their father’s favourite. Whether directly because of this or not, Denny’s life has been fractured and unsettled, much to the dismay of the rest of the Whitshank family, who all have stable families and careers. This all comes to a head when Denny and Stem start physically fighting, but this tends to get lost in a novel that, in some ways, shies away from really getting into the heads of these two men.

Though the novel does go back through time to explain both Abby and Red’s courtship, as well as Red’s parents, these two stories are not as interesting as the dynamics of the present day family—except for the small matter of Red’s mother being about 15 years younger than his father, which was a problem when they met when she was 14. These pieces of family hagiography are nice, but don’t add that much to the central plot.

There’s room in the world, I think, for this kind of relaxed novel. I don’t think we all want to read A little life every time we crack open a book. The danger, though, of novel like A spool of blue thread is that they become so calm as to be unforgettable. And while this was a pleasant and engaging way to spend a few days, it’s safe to say I won’t be thinking about the Whitshanks into the future.

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Booker Prize 2015: New Histories

The historical novel has always done well in the Booker. The last three winners (The narrow road to the deep north, The luminaries, Bring up the bodies) have all explored history in surprising ways. The two novels here both take a lesser known part of history as their starting point for stories that try to fill the gaps in our knowledge about what happened before us.

Laila Lalami, a Moroccan-American author, takes an historical document as her starting point. In 1527, the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez and a crew of 600 men sailed from Spain to the Gulf Coast of the United States to claim “La Florida” for the Spanish crown. While the mission was a complete failure, four men survived, one of whom was an unnamed Moorish slave. When the official histories came out, he was whitewashed out of them. In The moor’s account, Lalami imagines his story.

There’s such scope here to really examine two linked concepts—the colonisation of an entire continent by Europeans juxtaposed with man who has been on the receiving end of that colonisation—and Lalami makes an attempt to explore both. Thought the main narrative of the novel concerns itself with this horrifically failed mission in Florida, the first half is also interspersed with flashbacks to Estebanico’s life before he became a slave. What is interesting about this history is that Estebanico chose to become a slave—he sold himself into the trade to give his family the money to survive after his own businesses . In some ways, then, he is not a typical slave—he is not the result of a conquest, but of a failure of the colonial system to provide for its subjects.

Perhaps this, then, is why he cannot seem to see that the mission he is on is not only doomed, but morally questionable. His entire account is so dry, so lacking in emotion, that it feels like we are reading a history as opposed to a diary. I’m not sure this is a deliberate choice on Lalami’s part, but it does distance the reader from the story, and results in a failure to make you care about what is happening both to Estebanico and his fellow travellers. Instead of making the history come alive, it is reduced to a series of events—some things happen to these people, but there doesn’t seem to be any emotional investment in what happens to them.

Marlon James, too, takes an obscure piece of history—the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Kingston in 1976—to begin his novel. But while The moor’s account becomes dry and stale, A brief history of seven killings brings to life a world full of colour, passion, drugs and death.

The first thing to note is that this schizophrenic novel is long. With a cast of hundreds, James takes us through the lead up to the event, as well as the ripple effect of it, with a chorus of voices that weave in and out of the narrative, sometimes for decades, and others for just a day. Despite this, each and every voice has its own strength, and it’s easy to pick up the threads, even if you are coming back to a perspective after several hundred pages.

The greatest strength of the novel is the first 250 pages, which tell with impressive detail the story not only of the people who decide to kill the Singer, as he is known here, but the people around them trying to make sense of Jamaica in the 1970s. There are the two warring gangs, Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes, who are terrorising the streets, and finding themselves more and more involved with politics. There’s Nina, out of a job and obsessed with the Singer. Alex Pierce, Rolling Stone journalist trying to file the greatest story on the Singer anyone has ever read. As each of them circle closer towards the big day, James show us a huge cross-section of people who call Jamaica home, and what this place is like as the Cold War rages on around them, and as Jamaica is pulling itself towards something resembling democracy.

Once the assassination attempt happens, though, these players scatter around the country and the continent, living their lives and moving on. Alex Pierce, the journalist, cannot help but continue investigating the story: who were the people who tried to kill the Singer? As he does, though, he finds himself drawn into a world he cannot handle.

It is here that Josey Wales, the deputy of Copenhagen City, comes into focus. This second half is really his story, as he becomes leader of the Storm Posse, an international drug trafficking organisation that goes between Jamaica and New York, cutting down all those who dare to get in its way. This gang becomes slowly more intertwined with both the characters from before the event, and Jamaica itself, as it tries to find a way beyond the gang violence and drug trade that defined it in the past. The big question, though, is whether this is possible when the relationship between the politicians and the gangs is so close.

A story so rooted in place could not be told in standard English. From Nina’s attempts to sound more posh to Josey’s refusal to speak anything other than Jamaican English, via a frighteningly large vocabulary of uniquely Jamaican expletives, James experiments with English in a way that no other novel on the shortlist does. This experimentation adds another layer of authenticity, and reminds the reader that, though this is history, it is a history that was experienced, and is still alive.

There’s no doubt that A brief history of seven killings is an impressive piece of work. It’s probably a little too long for its own good, and while the latter 350 pages don’t quite live up to the blisteringly good first 250, it is nevertheless a painfully intense novel that examines the people on the periphery, those who are caught up in a pivotal moment, and how their lives are shaped by it. It’s not perfect, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good.

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The Goddess Chronicle (2008) – KIRINO Natsuo

作家:桐野 夏生

Many creation myths rely on a man. Those that don’t—like the one laid down in the Kojiki—requires the woman to know her place: subservient to the man. Indeed, in the text of the Japanese creation myth itself, the woman is punished for speaking out of turn. She literally is not allowed to have thoughts or ideas before the man does. Needless to say, this has informed a great deal of contemporary Japanese society. In The Goddess Chronicle, Natsuo Kirino interrogates this tale: what’s in it for the woman?

On a tiny teardrop island in the middle of the ocean two sisters are born. The older, Kamikuu, is destined for great things, while the younger, Namima, must live her life according to a strict set of rules laid down for women. But when one terrible event splits the two sisters forever, Namima finds herself in a place quite unlike anything she has ever known.

Nanima’s discovery that her older sister is the embodiment of purity, coincides with her realising that she is destined to be the representation of impurity. Without any action from her, society has forced her into a role she has no desire to play. From a young age, she is reminded that she is impure and dirty—an ugly woman with no place in polite society. Though, at first, she accepts her lot, as she grows older, she begins to rebel. In a neat flip of the Christian creation myth, it is a man—actually, a boy—who encourages her to rebel, to eat the forbidden food, and to reject her societal rules. Quickly, the two fall in love.

When Namima is (inevitably, perhaps) killed by her husband for his own selfish purposes, she is transported to the underworld, where she finds herself in the company of Izanami, the original female god who, with her husband, Izanaki, created the world. Izanami is filled with bitterness and rage at the world of men. For Izanami, this rage comes from being treated so poorly by both her husband and the creation god itself. Killed for speaking out of turn, she must now tend to the underworld as the goddess of death. Meanwhile, her husband is allowed to continue to wander the earth, sleeping with women and populating the world. Understandably, pain and anger infuse every single one of her actions.

By placing these two women next to each other, Kirino invites us to consider the pain women face at the hands of men. For Nanima, the pain is physical—her man saw her only as a biological tool, a vessel for his child to continue the family line. For Izanami, her crime was thinking outside the box. Both of their lives have been ruined by gender constructs beyond their control, by a world that sees women having a specific purpose and place. Any deviation from that line will quite literally result in a hell beyond anything on this earth.

This is a novel about violence against women, both physical and psychological. Kirino reminds us that, though this may be a myth, it is a myth that has shaped so much of what we believe today. It is a message to anyone who is listening: women have, since the beginning of creation, had to carry a burden far beyond what should be allowed, and perhaps this should be examined more closely by those in power.

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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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Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (1993) – Donald ANTRIM

It’s hard to know where to begin a review about a book like Elect Mr Robinson. We could talk about the scathing and biting social satirical tone of the whole work, lending it a kind of Desperate Housewives-on-steroids feeling. We could talk about the bizarre extended hallucinations of the main character, in which he is a buffalo living underwater with his fish wife. We could even talk about the shocking ending, which places Elect Mr Robinson firmly in the Easton Ellis school of late 80s/early 90s American violence literature.

I suppose we should start, though, at the beginning. From the very first page, there is a sense of unease as one plunges into the Donald Antrim’s world. Having killed off the previous mayor (the body now resides in his freezer, dismembered), Mr Pete Robinson has eyes on the job for himself. He thinks he, a third-grade teacher recently unemployed, is most suitable, despite his unusual obsession for medieval torture techniques, a hobby that manifests itself in his basement collection of dioramas. In an attempt to win favour with his neighbours, he decides to set up a home school

Clearly Pete is an unreliable narrator. His tone is strangely formal and polite, leaving the reader somewhat distanced from the action he describes. This also had the effect of sucking any irony out of situations, leaving us to deal with this bizarre parallel world as though it were straight. This is extremely discomforting, because so many of the little things are recognisable, even twenty years after publication. People are still worried about their neighbours, going out of their way to build elaborate fences and hedges to keep the bad people out. The extension Antrim builds—that people would build landmine-filled backyards, and booby-trapped moats—seems weirdly logical.

As a result, there are some hilariously memorable scenes. At one stage, Pete’s wife is seeing a therapist that encourages her to find her inner animal spirit. With no trace of irony, she announces that she is a coelacanth, a species of prehistoric fish. No one else in the room blinks. I mean, it’s completely ridiculous, but in this bizarrely twisted world of suburbia, the quest for some kind of spirituality in an otherwise barren landscape means that everyone is deadly serious about enlightenment.

And then there’s the ending. I can’t talk about it here—to spoil it would be to deny you a great pleasure as a reader. A quick glance on some other online reviews suggests that it has polarised readers: people love it or hate it, and their entire reading of the novel is coloured by their reaction. All I will say is that I love it. It is hugely jarring, and completely unexpected, but somehow acts as synecdoche for what Atrim is trying to show us as a whole: the dangers of taking things too far.

Most satirists tend to take one part of our world and mock it mercilessly. They shift the balance of one facet of our society just enough for us to examine it more closely. Antrim shifts everything. In doing so, he packs layer upon layer into a novel of less than 200 pages, forcing the reader to examine what it means to live in contemporary America. And though his contemporary is our history, it rings no less true today.


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The Blind Man’s Garden (2013) – Nadeem ASLAM

My pick for last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, was a beautiful evocation of a less-than-well-travelled part of the world—the dangerous mountains on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Reading that opened my eyes to a part of the world about which I know nothing. I was excited, then, to see that Nadeen Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden was set in the same place.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, two Pakistani brothers walk across the border into Afghanistan. They are not there to take up arms, but to help the wounded civilians caught up in the American invasion.

It tries to reach similar heights to one ones Khan’s achieves, but never manages to provide the reader with an emotional centre into which we can fully immerse ourselves. The story itself should be touching—it is the story of mistaken identity in a world torn apart by sectarian violence, where protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears. It is not limited to American misunderstanding of who is a terrorist and who isn’t—the Taliban are on the warpath, and anyone considered to be an American sympathiser is not safe.

Ostensibly the biggest problem with the novel is the way in which it is structured. In the first section, we are introduced to a family—the father, Rohan, whose wife’s death has forced him to question his beliefs in God; his biological son, and his adopted son. After the attack on New York on 9 September 2001, the two brothers decide to go to Afghanistan to help the sick and the injured.

So we spend almost a quarter of the book getting to know these two characters, only for at least one of them to be torn away from us. Why should we, as readers, continue to invest our emotion and thoughts into a novel that is willing to kill off a character it has set up as a protagonist so early?

The rest of the novel deals with the repercussions of this death. This, in itself, is not a bad choice, but I am yet to understand why Aslam waited this long to get to the heart of the narrative. Many of the reactions to his death are touching, and recounted deftly by Aslam, whose control of the English language is exquisite.

Most of my problems with the novel could easily be solved in one of two ways. The first is to simply eliminate the first section, and let the reader deal only with the fallout of an undeserved death on a grieving family. The other option is simply to rearrange the chapters slightly so Jeo’s story is told in flashback, slowly allowing us to understand who he was to those who remain.

Form and function are always bound tightly. The function of Aslam’s novel is to highlight to us the grey nature of right and wrong in a world where violence begets violence. It’s an admirable theme, and one that we would all do well to consider more often, particularly in the case of religious extremism. But his choice of form lets him down, and the meat of the novel doesn’t start until well after it should have. It is this that remains the fatal flaw for The Blind Man’s Garden.

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The Mussel Feast (1990) – Birgit VANDERBEKE

I’ve taken the plunge this year and bough a subscription to Peirene Press‘ Turning Points series of contemporary European novellas. The blurb on the back of The Mussel Feast tells us that this is a “modern German classic,” one that has been taught in German schools for the last twenty years. With this in mind, one has to wonder why it has taken this long to get translated into English, and why it has fallen on a small boutique publisher to do so.

A family sits down to a normal family dinner, but there is someone missing. The father has not yet returned from work, which is strange, because he is always on time. As the evening grows long, and as signs of the father’s arrival become fainter and fainter, the daughter tells us about the world that this family inhabit. A world where nothing is quite what it seems, and where, just underneath the surface, something terrible is brewing.

There’s a lot to be said for the short novel. It can give the author a chance to explore more deeply a concept or scene that might otherwise simply have been part of a larger canvas in an epic novel. Vanderbeke clearly realises this, and uses The Mussel Feast to closely and forensically examine the life of one family. Though the entire book is set over no more than a few hours, by the end, a detailed portrait of a four-person family has emerged. And it is not a family that I have any desire to get to know any better, though, as a testament to Vanderbeke’s skill as a writer, there is nothing else that needs to be known. Everything you could want is contained somewhere in these 105 pages.

The titular mussels are a symbol of the marriage central to the novel. There’s no greater symbol of familial love and piety than the evening meal, where all members of the family sit down together as a unit and discuss their day. This night’s meal is a mussel stew, the dish that has come to symbolise the relationship between husband and wife. Though she may not like it much, they ate it early in their relationship, and it has become something they return to again and again.

What makes this night different is the fact that the father doesn’t turn up. Which, in many ways, makes the feast even more unbearable. He is always on time, always ready for the evening meal—and so when he doesn’t arrive right on schedule, in many ways, the tension becomes even more pronounced. What will he be like when he finally does turn up? What has caused his delay? No doubt, any change in the schedule will upset him.

The key to unlocking the novel is contained in the phrase I used earlier: “though she may not like it”. Slowly but surely, like an orange being unpeeled, the narrator drops hints about past family dinners, and past family events. As she does it, though, there’s a strange sense of unease about the whole thing, as though there is something that’s not quite right with the whole thing. And then the penny drops. This isn’t a story about a family dinner where the father doesn’t turn up—it’s a story about a drunk and angry father. And once that clicks in your mind, the whole thing takes on a rather uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia.

Though he never appears on the page, it’s easy to imagine a man like the father of the family. I suspect there’s some cultural context I’m missing here (my knowledge of late-1980s Germany Is pretty limited), but it’s easy to gloss over—this is not a unique phenomenon. The father is so caught up in having this perfect middle-class family, he is blind to the fact that he is the one that is preventing this from happening. Embarrassed by his own relatively poor upbringing, he is a part of the aspiring middle-class that tries to erase its own history with conspicuous consumption—he mocks his wife for being cheap and stingy, though by any stretch of the imagination, her frugality is simply a smart way to save a few marks here and there. It’s not just her taste in clothes he despises—the furniture in the house must be well-designed and expensive, just to prove to anyone who might visit that, yes, this family has money it can afford to spend on things like nice furniture.

Of course, once you realise that this man is not very nice, the question of physical violence crosses your mind. For a man this crazy and controlling, resorting to physical violence to ensure his photo-perfect family remains intact doesn’t seem that far-fetched. And, inevitably—depressingly—your thoughts turn out to be correct. Several incidents are mentioned, though never expanded on, but it’s the fleeting, lingering images that take a hold of your imagination, rendering further detail superfluous.

The narrator never names the characters, adding to the sense of beige that seems to permeate the novel. The language is simple without being simplistic, and in many ways, is almost stream of conscious: the paragraphs are pages and pages long, and we slip between past and present with great ease. This all adds to the stuffy, claustrophobic atmosphere that Vanderbeke draws so well.

They say good things come in small packages. If this is the standard of all Peirene books, I look forward to the other 2013 offerings. The Mussel Feast is a glorious book. Everything I could possibly want in a novel is somewhere in here: the language is taut, the symbolism is heavy, and there is nothing superfluous. It may have taken twenty years, but English-speaking readers can finally read a classic novel that lives up to its label.

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Gold Rush (1998) – YŪ Miri

I’ve read some of Yū’s work before, though mostly in Japanese, and mostly skimming through it for thesis preparation. So it was nice to find a whole novel in the library translated into English so I didn’t have to think about it. Yū is a third-generation zainichi Korean writer (click the link for an explanation), though most of her work doesn’t really deal with race or ethnicity in any meaningful way. What she does seem more concerned with, though, is gender roles in contemporary Japan, and the ways in which men and women react to one another.

Kazuki is heir to Vegas, a huge chain of pachinko parlours. His father, Hidetomo Yuminaga, runs the company like a mad-man, but dotes on his middle-son, who is the only child capable of taking over the family business. His eldest son is mentally disabled, and his youngest is a girl. But this free reign has meant Kazuki has lost sight of what it means to be normal – for him, rape, drugs, and violent outbursts are the norm. One day, though, he does something so outrageous in his quest to take his father’s job, nothing will ever be the same again.

I want to start this review by briefly mentioning how I read this novel. I know I just said that Yū is not interested in race in her work, but it’s hard to avoid when you have a Korean name written in Korean characters plastered on your books in an otherwise Japan-friendly Japanese bookstore. Everyone who reads Yū in Japan knows she is ethnically Korean. And I came into the novel with that baggage: I know that, on average, Koreans in Japan are poorer, face more discrimination, are more likely to join gangs, more likely to run pachinko parlours etc. So while it is never explicitly stated (except for one passage where someone refers to Kazuki’s father as Chang Yong-chang – a Korean name if ever I’ve seen one), I think we’re all supposed to understand this to be a Korean family. Just something for those not as invested in Japanese cultural history as I am to think about.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read any other novel that explicitly described an under-age gang rape scene less than twenty pages in. And that’s really the base-line for the sex and violence in this novel. If you are faint-hearted, this is not for you. Fortunately, it almost never seems gratuitous, which is good, because I’ve seen Yū compared to Bret Easton Ellis, whose work I have always found to be gratuitously pushing boundaries of good taste. Yū manages to give us a protagonist who watches his friends gang rape a girl, who sells drugs to his friends, who kills his own father, who beats a dog to death with a golf club, and yet still comes off as almost sympathetic. Almost.

His most redeeming feature is the love and care he shows towards his older brother, Koki, who suffers from Williams Syndrome, which for the purposes of this novel comes across as something on the Autism spectrum. Like all 14 year old boys, Kazuki wants to be treated like an adult, and he thinks that acting like one will get him some respect, Unfortunately, the only real role model he has – his father – is less than ideal. This is the angle Yū pushes as an explanation for Kazuki’s abhorrent behaviour, though it takes her almost the entire novel to really make it explicit, leaving me at least to assume that, for most of the novel, Kazuki is actually just a dick.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of poverty and dirtiness that anyone who’s spent more than five minutes outside the tourist traps of Tokyo will instantly recognise. There’s a delightfully seedy history of gambling, prostitution and other well-regarded under-world activities in Japan’s big (and small) cities, and Kogane-chō is one of the best. It’s perhaps an ironic background, considering just much money the Yuminaga family have, but perhaps that’s the irony here – the rich are getting richer by screwing those addicted to the, quite frankly, ridiculous past-time that is pachinko.

I’ve spent some talking about poverty and money in this novel, and while it certainly is important, gender plays at least as important a role here, too.

Most of the female characters are secondary, and (if I remember correctly) all but one are either violently and horribly abused sexually and physically. It’s not a pretty picture, and I suppose that’s the point – Miho, the younger sister, seems to be a prostitute at the tender age of 15; Sugimoto, the second-in-command at Vegas, is having a violent affair with Kazuki’s father; Mai, Kazuki’s mistress, ends up sleeping with Kazuki, even though he’s only 14, and doesn’t seem happy about it. There’s a lot of stuff here about the role women play in Japanese (zainichi?) society, and it’s clear they are nothing but second-class citizens. From the simple fact that Miho, the daughter of the family, cannot take over the business simply because of her sex, to the treatment of almost every other character as a sex toy, it’s hard not to be confronted and angered by the way in which women are treated. It’s more that misogynistic, and to be fair to mainstream Japanese (and zainichi) society, probably a little exaggerated, but if that’s what it takes, maybe that’s the path Yū has to take.

Kazuki’s mother is the one redeeming feature in this onslaught of unpleasantness. She is everything Hidetomo is not – calm, reserved, and most importantly, relentlessly anti-materialistic. She abandoned her family long ago, realising that the lifestyle she was being forced to live was not doing anything for her mental and spiritual well-being. She provides hope, hope that there is a way out of this cycle of violence and madness. It is to her that Kazuki turns for advice and help in the final act, reaching out from the violent and money-hungry life he has known, in order to find some kind of salvation. She is the antithesis of everything to which Kazuki has previously aspired, and the fact that she (kind of) wins the battle for his soul at the end highlights what I can only assume is Yū’s message here.

Very briefly on the translation style: I don’t like macrons, particularly when they’re used in the names of main characters – it looks funny on the page. But other than that, Stephen Snyder, who also translated The Housekeeper and the Professor, does a good job. (And, having finished the rest of the review, I’ve only just realised I’ve done the same bloody thing with Yū’s name. I’m sorry.)

It’s always seemed strange to me that we don’t apply age ratings to books like we do with films – both contain a wide range of themes and images that can be disturbing to people who might not be ready for them. Gold Rush should come with a warning. It contains intense scenes of rape, drug use and violence. But unlike so many other novels, they all serve a purpose. Yū paints a world where money has corrupted men (and I use that word intentionally here) to such an extent, they have forgotten what it means to be human. Disturbing, confronting, terrifying.

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The Casual Vacancy (2012) – JK ROWLING

There’s no question that The Casual Vacancy will be the most talked about book of 2012. JK Rowling’s first foray into writing for an adult audience, we’ve now known about the existence of this book for years. And the fact that almost no one was allowed to get their hands on a review copy, combined with an international embargo, meant that excitement and anticipation for it was whipped up into a form that caused several members of the public to swear at me when I refused to sell it to them before the embargo. So is it worth the wait?

When Barry Fairbrother, a likeable member of the local council, dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm, the small town of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. Without the seemingly irreplaceable Barry, the town begins to turn on itself, pitting resident against resident as an historically divisive issue rears its ugly head. As secrets come out and lives irrevocably changed in the superficially peaceful town, events are also forcing change in the neighbouring council estate housing. Nothing will ever be the same again.

A word of warning – if you don’t like books with unlikeable characters, this is not the novel for you. Just as Tsiolkas’ The Slap exaggerated unappealing characters to prove a point about contemporary Australian society, so too does Rowling populate Pagford with people I hope I never meet. Howard, the ostensible mayor of Pagford, treats his daughter-in-law like a piece of meat, despite having a wife watching him. Gavin, Barry’s best friend, has been stringing along a social worked from London who has moved to London with her sixteen-year-old daughter just to be closer to him. Krystal, the local wild girl, has a heroin addict for a mother and a violent temper that has resulted in several lost teeth at school.

I assume everyone who’s read the book has an opinion about who is the worst character in the novel, but there was no contest for me, and I will fight you all if you disagree. I’m not sure I can recall a time when I’ve felt more anger towards a fictional character than when I was reading any passage containing Simon Price, father to Andrew ‘Arf’ Price, ,husband to Ruth. This is a man who torments his youngest son Paul by constantly referring to him as ‘Pauline’; who calls his son a “fucking little shit” on too many occasions to count; who beats his entire family when it is discovered that their new computer is stolen. Paul is on the receiving end of these attacks so often, he develops nosebleeds on the way to school because he is so stressed.

It is unsurprising, then, that Andrew should be the one to initiate the Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother handle that begins to haunt the worryingly poorly secured website of the local council. So outraged that his father would consider standing for local government – and worried that his father’s crazy would become public knowledge – Andrew takes to hacking the website to anonymously vent his rage. Once this enters into the public consciousness, two other teenagers take up the technology with which they are frighteningly familiar, and do the same to their own parents. The trick gets a little old third time around, but the effects remain as devastating as the first time. In fact, the role of “cyberbullying” (a phrase I desperately hate) is examined quite closely here, perhaps highlighting the seemingly never-ending cycle of bullying humanity at which humanity seems so well-versed taking on a new and worrying form. One of the few people in the novel who seems designed to elicit sympathy is Sukhvinder, a young Sikh girl who is bullied mercilessly for her physical appearance, driving her to self-harm. Her mother and father seem blissfully unaware of this, worrying more about their older children getting into university. Her antagonising bully is Fats, the son of Colin Wall, the deputy headmaster, who was good friends with Barry. Fats, incidentally, was one of the many characters in the novel I was on the verge of liking, but then goes and ruins it all by being a complete and utter dick to Sukhvinder over Facebook, and indeed, in real life.

Like all good British novels, class is central to the way in which characters act and react to the events around them. We have to turn to the daughter of a heroin addict for any glimmer of hope in this quagmire of petty and parochial infighting that seems to plague the middle- and upper-class residents of the town. In an interview with Jennifer Byrne last week, Rowling mentioned that a potential title for the novel had been What Do We Do About Krystal? And, of course, this is the moral quandary central to the novel: how do we, as middle- and upper-class people, deal with drug-addicts who have fallen into a hole of substandard living conditions and welfare dependency, particularly when they live next door to us? Most of the people in Rowling’s book simply want to brush the problem away – out of sight, out of mind. Rowling does not offer any concrete suggestions for improvement – and I don’t think anyone should expect an author to come up with a problem to a deeply intractable social issue – other than to ask us for more sympathy, more time to properly understand the underlying issues surrounding these people and their lifestyle.

The novel is not perfect. As with all books over about 300 pages, I think it drags a little, and could do with a little pruning. Having said that, the cast of characters is huge – almost too huge – so without cutting out some of the subplots, I’m not sure what she could do to resolve the problem. The pacing, too, seems a little off. Something like a hundred pages are dedicated to going through the town, examining the reactions of each and every member of the cast. And then the election itself turns out to not be the climax of the novel at all, coming before the third act even begins. Then there’s an exceptionally odd town council meeting which probably could have been the end, but isn’t – by a long shot. And then there’s the end, which actually is quite touching, though I should warn you, in no way optimistic.

It’s been hard to find a review of this novel that doesn’t mention Harry Potter. I’ve tried to redress this problem, but there are one or two points I want to make about it before I finish. Many reviewers seem shocked that Rowling has written a novel that isn’t anything at all like HarryThe Casual Vacancy has sex, a lot of swearing, and a whole load of drug taking. But all of this is superficial. Thematically, it seems like the logical next step for Rowling. Her primary concern in both works is mortality, and she has admitted as much in interviews. I don’t know why people are that surprised at The Casual Vacancy – there were hints of wider concerns about closed-mindedness and parochialism in Potter. All one has to do is read Chapter Two of Philosopher’s Stone to see the Dursley’s lock their nephew in a broom cupboard for fear of his ‘difference’ being discovered by their neighbours. I mean, that’s pretty heavy stuff, even for a kid’s book. No longer shackled by a huge child-oriented audience, it feels like Rowling is letting loose with ideas that have been bubbling below the surface for a long time.

The Casual Vacancy is a blistering and angry attack on the parochial and superficial mindset that seems to infect middle England. It is a confronting novel, and often makes for unpleasant reading. In many ways, though, this is the strength of the novel – slapping its readers in the face with social realism can only make us questions our own views, and start a wider conversation about the kind of society in which we want to live.

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The Mary Smokes Boys (2010) – Patrick HOLLAND

There’s something about Queensland. Thea Astley, Andrew McGahan, Matthew Condon – for a state widely regarded as a cultural backwater, it’s a surprisingly fertile breeding ground for talented writers. This is not being helped by the new Premier, but I digress. Maybe it’s the sense of isolation between those small Queensland towns. Maybe it’s the strange conservative nature of many Queenslanders. Who knows. Whatever it is, it’s intriguing.

In the tiny town of Mary Smokes, a group of young men steal horses to resell them. One of them is Grey North, a young man who’s mother died giving birth to his younger sister, who’s father is a good-for-nothing drunk. His younger sister, Irene, idolises him, following him everywhere he goes. As they grow up, their relationship takes on new and unusual facets not even they could have foreseen. This is a novel of small town Australia, of the people that inhabit them, and what happens at night.

Grey’s family is one tragedy after another. His mother died giving birth to his younger sister, his father is a drunk – and that’s it. It falls to a young Grey to look after his even younger sister, and as a result, he becomes overly protective of her, and she becomes deeply reliant on him. Grey will do anything to protect his little sister, while she will follow him around everywhere he goes, even if this means out into the bush. It will come, I suspect, as little surprise, that Grey’s own feelings towards his sister slowly become more and more confused as she matures and turns into a young woman. The slowly dawning realisation that he is no longer the only man in her life upsets Grey’s view of life, and he inevitably lashes out. Fortunately, he doesn’t do anything too ridiculous – though the sexual assault of your younger sister is nothing to forget. I suppose we can be thankful for small mercies that he realises what he is doing before it gets really bad.

I spoke a little while ago about the way in which Paul Carter detailed a way in which young Australian men grew up, and how the teenage years are so formative for a person’s future life. Holland is doing the same thing here, but I think perhaps to more effect. He races through the early years, and Grey’s falling in with the wrong crowd is clear and easy to understand. In contrast to Carter, though, Holland skips the whiny angsty teenage years, landing up firmly in the early twenties, Grey’s life already ruined. This allows him to examine and explore what life is like for a high school drop out with no ambition in a tiny town in rural Queensland. As tends to be the case, Grey and his friends resort to petty crime, making money from dead end jobs in highway petrol stations, and chasing the few girls left in town.

There’s a bit in Casino Royale when M turns to Bond and says that “arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand in hand.” I’m about to make a really big leap here, but follow if you can. I don’t think Grey is arrogant in the traditional sense, but I do think he has spent a lot of his youth being blissfully unaware of the consequences of his life choices, whether that be stealing horses or whatever. In some ways, I suppose, that is the arrogance of youth. But in the final chapters, as he begins to, well, grow up, and become more aware of his surroundings and his own position within those surroundings, he also becomes aware of his own failings in looking after himself and looking after his younger sister.

Spoilers abound for anyone who hasn’t read this. The finale is gut-wrenchingly sad. In the truly classical sense, this is a tragedy. Just as Grey finds an out – the girl he’s been sleeping with has decided to move to Brisbane, and he’s happy to follow – Irene is killed. It’s a random, senseless act of violence, and despite the undercurrent of danger and despair running through the novel, this is the first time it spills over into Grey’s family. Holland leaves the consequences of this horrific act unsaid, but there are signs of depression in Grey’s reactions, and it does not feel like it is going to be the fairy tale ending Grey was hoping for.

I really enjoyed The Mary Smokes Boys. I know it’s unfair to compare this with Carter’s debut novel, but since I read them at the same time, and they share similar themes, it’s all connecting in my head. Holland paints a beautifully bleak portrait of two young people left with no parents, and how they learn to survive in a world with absolutely no hope at all. I look forward to other stories from Patrick Holland.

Oh, and Mary Smokes is a real place.

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