Tag Archives: reviews

A Ministry, a Garden, a God

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I read a lot of books. For research mainly, or so I tell others and myself but also for pleasure, for comfort and to know myself better. I read fabulous books and ordinary ones, heartbreaking books and healing ones, smart books and hilarious ones, and I have a system of shelving these in idiosyncratic ways. I give away a lot of books too, sometimes because I can’t stand to have them in my house and sometimes because I realise guiltily I have multiple copies I don’t need. And I rarely loan them out. I’m sure the ones that I do loan to very special friends burn in their hands until they return them. The bibliotaph’s burden. We all have something to carry, do we not?

I try to read the world in the voices of the world. Three recent books have been on my mind so much that I feel compelled to unpack their hold on my consciousness.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone follows the journey of Vivian Spencer from England to Turkey to Peshawar in the troubled years from 1914 to 1930 when colonialism compressed the lives of a disparate band of people and left a trail of personal and global destruction. Vivian’s legacy is loss. She loves the Turkish archaeologist Tahsin Bey and follows him into the ancient city of Caspatyrus (modern Peshawar) but betrays him anyway, echoing the subcontinent’s colonial enterprise; the aftershocks of which its people continue to feel today. Years later she befriends Najeeb Gul, a young Peshawari boy whose troubled older brother will unleash his own brand of destruction within the countries that have used and discarded him. Shamsie uncovers the layers of the ancient landscape where her story is set, turning an unflinching eye towards the lives buried beneath and superimposed over those layers. This novel is fiction at its truth-telling best. “Why sigh over lost mulberries instead of giving thanks to the engineers who saved the city from floodwaters? said Qayyum and Najeeb threw his hands in the air in exasperation. Lala, why can’t you see that the past is beautiful” (p263).

Nadeem Aslam is another writer who walks confidently into the murky territories of war, loss, race and religion. I read The Blind Man’s Garden on a recent plane trip from India to Perth and remember feeling like I couldn’t take my eyes off the page in case I missed something. Aslam’s writing always evokes a sense of doom. When this writer decides to place his characters inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while their families attempt to live lives of ideological beauty, the result is beautiful, raw and intense. And scary. The slow build-up of horror swept me up entirely and dumped me, metaphorically on the other side, bleary-eyed and stunned. Rohan, the blind man of the title, knows that “history is the third parent.” When both his son and foster son leave him in his garden of memories to go and help save wounded civilians from the Taliban, Rohan remembers that his ancestors had played a part in the loss of Muslim lands to nonbelievers. “This was the century-old taint that Rohan had tried to remove by spreading the soils of Allah’s six beloved cities here. Mecca. Baghdad. Cordoba. Cairo. Delhi. Istanbul” (p11). Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie both know their landscape, their people and their sorrows and understand how the world will always come to the doorsteps of those whose lives are considered expendable. We live in times when the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ cause fear or at least discomfort in a Western context. Here are two contemporary writers (and there are several) unafraid to write the complexities that define the politics of terror, fear and justice.

Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness took me through a journey of the country of my birth and showed it to me in ways that confronted, broke and made me whole again. Roy uses myth, larger-than-life landscapes and people, and the minutiae and particularities of lives lived under fear and despair to describe love and joy. Aftab/Anjum lives his/her life in the crumbling graveyard of an Old Delhi neighbourhood. Anjum distances herself from her genteel family of birth after deciding to live as a woman despite being born a hermaphrodite. And yes, there are troubled boys across the country with legacies they cannot contain in their bodies; boys like the enigmatic Kashmiri Musa who loves the South Indian Tilottama. Under the vast canvas of modern India and the lives she follows, Roy’s fierce, iconic politics is never disguised. “Today, as the saffron tide of Hindu Nationalism rises in our country like the swastika once did in another, Naga’s ‘foolish faith’ schoolboy speech would probably get him expelled, if not by the school authorities, then certainly by some sort of parents’ campaign” (p165). Roy has her detractors, most of whom appear to think she ought not to fiercely criticise a country that shelters her, but like Shamsie and Aslam, Roy’s truth shines through the refracted prism of fiction.

These were difficult books to read and grieve over. They fed my pessimism. They made me long to hold those I love fiercely. They made me wish someone would ask me to run a course on reading that elevates you and makes you want to be a better person and a better writer. They spoke to those nerve-endings that tingle when I know I am being transformed. And most of all, they taught me how hard it is to write elegantly about difficult things and how astonishing it is when complexity and tragedy combine to create beauty.

First published in Southern Crossings

http://southerncrossings.com.au/arts-and-culture/a-ministry-a-garden-a-god/

 

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Books on Shelves

When a friend sent me a photo of my novel on her shelf, my preoccupation with books and how they appear on shelves, inspired me to find pictures of The Historian’s Daughter on various shelves, in bookshops, libraries and homes. Those who know me understand my idiosyncratic shelving of my books – I sort by gender and country in the first instance and may occasionally swap around to accommodate writers who no longer live in the country of their origin. I situate myself on the Australian Women Writers shelf, although I could equally live alongside Indian Women Writers. This system confuses any reader who looks at my shelves, but it works for me. Clearly my friend has a system that works for her – there are men and women, mostly Australian, in this mix. I just know that to be sharing a shelf with Amanda Curtin, Hannah Kent, Josephine Wilson and Khaled Hosseini among others, works for me 🙂

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When I was invited last year to launch my novel in Melbourne at the Eltham Book Shop, I was gobsmacked to be sharing a shelf with Arundhati Roy, whose second novel was surely the most anticipated book in recent times. The bookshop itself is amazing and I could have lived there, happily and secretly, because there are so many shelves to hide behind and enough books to last me this lifetime and more.

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And here’s this picture. I was at the Perth City Library and found myself under Modern Fiction. In my travels as a sneaky author hoping to take pictures of her novel in the wilderness, I have found a reciprocal idiosyncrasy in the way librarians and bookstore owners categorise my novel.

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And this final picture is from the 2017 Perth Writers Festival, where, for the first time I saw multiple copies of my novel snuggling up against others. I look forward to this year’s festival, where I’ll be speaking with writers Fiona Harari, Leigh Straw and Fiona Palmer about their new books.

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Books I loved in 2017

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I started the year as I always do, with a selection of books by Australian writers, this time because I was fortunate enough to be on a writing panel with Carmel Bird, Josephine Wilson and Nicole Sinclair at the Perth Writers Festival. Also on one of my panels was Rajith Savandasa whose debut novel Ruins situated me into the heart of family I felt I already knew, so rich and immediate are the details of intimacy that appear effortless in this novel. Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair, another debut novel, follows the Australian Beth, running away from something she cannot come to terms with, to Papua New Guinea, where she encounters the ‘ugly Australian’ expat community but also immerses herself in a country whose culture will always remain a mystery to her. Carmel Bird’s Family Skeletons made me laugh out loud while feeling like I knew these people in their rich mansions, their extraordinary secrets, their humanity and their cruelty and their inability to let go of a way of life they consider their birth right. And Josephine’s Wilson’s luminous Extinctions which has since won The Miles Franklin and The Colin Roderick Awards, reminded me of the writerly skill it takes to care about a mostly unlikable main character. Frederick Lothian frustrated me while simultaneously allowing me to care deeply about his bumbling and failing relationships. I know brief musings do not do justice to the depth, richness and literary truth of these exceptional novels. Therefore I recommend them with all my heart. Collectively they made me a better reader and human being.

It did seem to be the year of reading debut novels – the next on my list is Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is hard to describe in a sentence, so I invite you to read my review here. Persian myth intersects with political reality and a poetic sensibility that filled my heart with music. And as this is a translation, one of my resolutions over the coming year is to teach myself Farsi, so I can read this in its author’s original language.

Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl reminded me of all the things I had either forgotten or learned to live with. And misogyny in all its forms, even when practiced by other women (Ford calls this internalised misogyny), must always be called out. And Ford does this with wit, clarity and anger. I have bought copies for most young women I know, especially the ones that tell me, ‘there’s no need for feminism anymore you know; we ARE equal.’

For different reasons completely, I loved Toni Jordan’s, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts. A farce about couples and marriage and fidelity and integrity, Janice’s sanity is at risk because she is surrounded by the most selfish collection of individuals that would send any vestige of normalcy right out the window.

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a book, that I, along with millions, waited 20 years for, plunged me into the iconoclastic philosophy of a writer who will always be hard to define. Both lament and howl, both narrative and politics, this is a tough book, a sprawling and messy book – utterly beautiful and heartbreaking. It made me whisper to myself – my India, what have you done? What have you become?

 I came late to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. I learned so much reading this fierce, sumptuous, honest novel. Every time there was a reference to a piece of American history I was unsure about, I asked Professor Google and came back to the novel with a deeper sense of recognition about its concerns.

I ended the year with Aboriginal Australian writers, as seems fitting.  Kim Scott’s Taboo is written with lyrical precision and invites us to witness years of dispossession and the excesses of colonial abuse. You can read my review here. Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby sings – that really is the only way to describe it. It sings to country, motherhood, loss and love in a way that only a writer like Lucashenko can do. Language and landscape are inseparable and we are such a small part of an ancient connection that predates us, that I’m freshly grieved these stories are not more mainstream. They ought to be required reading in every school. Maybe the power of story can make us better. Maybe we can start treating the men in Manus with the same respect we accord to our trees and wetlands.

The books that disappointed me thoroughly were ones I had long looked forward to reading. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, despite its intriguing setting in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was tedious in execution and lost its way several times in bylanes that went nowhere. And Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, again, despite the fascinating Marina Abramovic as subject, introduced me to Arky Levin, who will go down in my reading memory as the most irritating and irredeemable character it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter. His sudden transformation at the end into a caring husband inspired me to fling it across the room.

And finally, 3 slim volumes of poetry made me grateful for the gift of being able to read. Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths by Sholeh Wolpeh with its precipice of loneliness and women who unfold, sin by sin, is a deeply evocative and sensual commentary on the things we didn’t know could break our hearts. Charlotte Guest’s Soap reminded me of those lodgings at the end of girlhood and how when things become bearable; it is actually the most unbearable part. Lovely, musical and highly recommended. Amanda Joy’s Snake Like Charms made me care about snakes and algae and insects and told me that black water fish shudder once to light/then darken into gone. The woman is a magician and everyone should read her.

Writers who trusted me to read their finished first drafts were a special treat. While I cannot reveal the names of these wonderful and hopefully-soon-to-be-published writers, I can say that one of them has been shortlisted for a major award, another two have found literary agents, while yet another has won a writing residency. I anticipate being able to add them to my next year’s reading list.

And before the year is done I look forward to reading Kohinoor by William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, and The Golden House by Salman Rushdie.

 

Taboo by Kim Scott

Taboo starts with an out-of-control semi trailer freewheeling down a street, a hillside, spilling wheat, two humans and a skeleton as it crests to a stop in ‘massacre place.’ It is a powerful beginning tempered with a warning from its author – ‘this is no fairy tale, it is drawn from real life.’ In his Afterword, Scott concedes that his fiction touches on ‘real events, people and landscape.’ Storytelling, particularly in the hands of someone as accomplished as Kim Scott, will always be a political act, and this story is no exception. As a work of fiction, it is incomparable; as a work of fiction based loosely on real life, it is devastating.

West Australian writers often feature landscape as a character in their fiction. Tim Winton, Craig Silvey and Scott himself in earlier works. The landscape in Taboo is more than a ‘character’ though. Taboo’s landscape is particular, intense and deeply intuitive, holding and excluding its inhabitants alternately. Whether he’s describing the old woman concealed within bougainvillea, or the way people become fragments in ‘scattered shards of sunlight,’ Scott’s landscape moves, speaks and encourages the reader to see differently. Trees conceal scars, bristle when a bus approaches and toss their noisy leaves when a thunderstorm threatens. Wind, rain and evening shadows exhale, shred and roar. And yet this is not an alien landscape, not deliberately positioned as either malign or benign. This is landscape as part of the universe, just as we are, in all our flawed, occasionally heroic and mostly despairing lives.

And it is on those flawed lives that Scott’s eye lingers. The young woman who emerges from the runaway truck, Tilly, brave and resilient perhaps or filled with secret harm, is the pivot around whom the stories turn. Her white mother and Aboriginal father are both dead and she has returned to that place, the massacre place where her ancestors, her foster father and his son would claim her, and she must resist these claims. Is she the wrong girl, the girl who must not be touched or given, or is she the product of her environment and displacement? The rag tag band of hopefuls who journey towards reconciliation, for the opening of a Peace Park, hold her in their midst, sensing the disquiet but unable to heal. Because the country itself is frizzing with discontent; weeds, stones, gullies, rocks erupting, punching and lunging about in ‘an enormous space. The big old sky above.’

Landscape becomes language in Scott’s unerring hands. In what appears to be a deliberate and enticing device, the people in this story speak the ‘old language,’ which is mostly referred to as such; ‘Gerald spoke its name in the old language.’ Parrots, eagles and cockatoos all speak, as do earth and sky and bolts of lightening. The old people and the young ones who watch them, speak in circular ways, familiar to those who come from oral storytelling traditions. And they speak ‘now and in the future, the drunks and addicts, the old people and their carers and all those otherwise lost but wanting to help.’ Scott’s people describe generational despair and sit within their losses. Their tears rise and meet the sea. They understand what it means to be Noongar, ‘proper Noongar things, not museum made-up stuff.’ Their grief manifests itself in language that recognises they could have done things differently. Breath and feeling and fire sing them to language.

The novel ends as it begins, reminding the reader of the circularity of stories, how beginnings and endings are shaped by intent and weighed by landscape. It is a story of dispossession, abuse, colonialism, addiction and racism. Scott’s prose is lyrical as well as melancholy. He reminds us of the importance of bearing witness with unflinching precision. The men and women who walk through these pages are startlingly aware of their failings and equally forgiving of those failings in others. There are no quick fixes and the story vacillates between despair and hope. Yet this is not a grim story. The lucidity of its prose lifts it beyond the despair in its pages and reminds us that there are no perfect words and no easy resolutions to the trials of our First Nations people. Matilda-Tilly, girl-woman, both descendant and ancestress, haunted me in the way that fully realised figures in fiction and memoir often do; reminding me of Amanda Curtin’s Meggie in Elemental and the young Sally Morgan in My Place. This book needs to be read, reviewed, discussed and recommended widely. My life is richer for it.

Publisher: Picador, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brown girls who shout

Whereas we write and speak as members of a small minority of marginal voices, our journalistic and academic critics belong to a wealthy system of interlocking informational and academic resources with newspapers, television networks, journals of opinion, and institutes at its disposal. Most of them have now taken up a strident chorus of rightward-tending damnation, in which they separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-Judeo-Christian from the acceptable and designated Western ethos, then herd it all together under various demeaning rubrics such as terrorist, marginal, second-rate, or unimportant. To attack what is contained in these categories is to defend the Western spirit.

Since Edward Said wrote these words in 1993, I can’t say much has changed. Recent events in Australia, as well as globally, in the past few weeks, have sent me scurrying to my boxes of books and tearing them open with the distress of one who usually retreats to literature when confronted, challenged, heartbroken.

Last week, the ABC program, Q&A made headlines as viewers were subjected to the spectre of Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie shouting the oft repeated refrains – ban the burka; deport Muslims; halt immigration. Lambie’s website explains that she puts Tasmania first, advocates the banning of the burka and thinks that Sharia law is an anti democratic cancer. When fellow panellist and Muslim writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied attempted to explain Sharia to the Senator, voices were raised, fingers were pointed and insults were hurled. The so-called moderator of the program interrupted Abdul-Magied when she raised her voice and she backed down. Later, those journals of opinion erupted in a frenzy against Abdel-Magied; the mildest, accusing her of being an apologist for Islam, going on tax payers funded holidays to extremist societies, and the vilest, calling her names that brought to mind the campaign against former Prime Minster Julia Gillard. Abdel-Magied’s sin, in part, appears to have been that she raised her voice in an attempt to be heard. Senator Lambie’s finger pointing and yelling appeared to gain her more support (Go Jacquie) in those bastions of public opinion whereas Abdel-Magied’s defence of her way of life inspired vitriol and a recommendation she be deported. Brown girls must not shout.

Not long ago a similar incident involving Jamila Rizvi and Steve Price on The Project also divided viewers. Rizvi, another brown girl, asked Steve Price to keep quiet because she was talking and refused to let him interrupt her. Well. A Change.org petition demanded an instant apology from Rizvi on behalf of the scowling, misogynistic Price who pronounced himself ‘humbled’ by the support. He also appeared to think that Rizvi’s shouting was unacceptable, but did not see any contradiction in attempting to interrupt her or speak over her to get his point across. A point worth noting here is that The Project’s co-host is Waleed Aly, also a Muslim, whose behaviour is scrutinised closely and whose every utterance is pounced upon. But Ali, because of his gender, star power and intelligence, is allowed to get away with occasional ‘misdemeanours’ as perceived by his white audience. Brown girls, however, cannot. We need to keep our heads down and our voices low. We must be nice. The sub-text appears to be – we understand that your origins, race and religion condemn you and make you inadequate but we are willing to help you if you’re nice. If you’re not nice, we’ll get upset and point out all the things that are wrong with having people like you in our country.

This is the message I hear when I emerge from my self-imposed burial in the books I turn to when I’m upset. As a brown Australian it’s hard to stay apolitical when the country slides publicly into bigotry, as this report indicates. It’s hard to stay positive when the people in my city greet Pauline Hanson enthusiastically. It’s hard to stay buoyant when men in suits order the destruction of Aboriginal and environmental sacred sites and ignore their humanitarian obligations.

But brown girls mustn’t shout. That’s important. And here’s the thing. Brown girls know they mustn’t shout. We were raised to keep our voices and eyes lowered. We were raised by patriarchs in societies emasculated by colonialism. When we left our brown shores for these white sands we already knew how to behave. Despite centuries of conditioning, we raise our voices. Think of the cost. The shame of our mothers. Why do we do it?

In the words of the magnificent Sarah Kay;

You keep your scissors in the knife drawer

I keep mine with the string and tape.

We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,

I just don’t always recognise my own weaponry.

Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson- book review

‘Why did no one help?’ This was the question Kristina Olsson reflexively asked at the 2015 Perth Writers Festival, at a panel discussing her memoir, Boy, Lost. It was also the question that haunted me as I read this book, winner of the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards and on the shortlist for the 2014 Stella Prize. In a sense, this is more than the story of Olsson’s beautiful mother Yvonne and her stoic half-brother Peter – this is the story of Australia in the 1950s; the same period romanticised by John Howard and the current Prime Minister as a time of mateship and heroism and optimism. It was also a time of cruelty and neglect and looking the other way. It was a time when children were institutionalised and abused, when neighbours pitied but dared not intervene in marital ‘disputes,’ when the real heroes were the women and children who survived despite attempts to annihilate them.
This story of Olsson’s mother and her brutal first marriage, and the boy who was lost to her for forty years is beautifully written. The stark sentences gutted me with their power. On page 2 – ‘ This is the story my mother never told, not to us, the children who would grow up around it in the way that skin grows over a scratch.’ And a short while later, on page 6, describing the first time 17 year old Yvonne sees 34 year old Michael and foreshadowing the doomed relationship, there’s this: ‘She doesn’t stand a chance.
Olsson says her mother was a woman of ‘infinite tenderness and quiet fury.’ As children they learned not to provoke that fury, although when Kristin and her sister Sharon were teenagers, their mother talked quietly, furiously, about self-control and risk-taking. ‘This is what she tells us when we are in our teens: that we will be fought for, will be physically restrained if need be, if the situation demands it.’ It’s not so different from the lectures I remember giving my own daughter when she became a teenager, more than twenty years after Yvonne lectured her own daughters. Mothering through the ages and between cultures remains essentially the same, I think.
This is a story of love and grief and abuse and the wisdom that comes with surviving and forgiving. Yvonne’s yearning for her lost son seeps into her life with her other sons and daughters and the husband whose devotion sustained her. And that son whose life on the streets and within institutions still did not weaken his belief that a loving mother waited for him, somewhere. Their reunion was just one of a dozen times I had to put the book down and absorb the intimacy and sorrow of what I was reading. This is a powerful, lyrical exploration of how families love and hate and break and heal. Unflinching, ethical and unsentimental, I recommend it highly.

My second book review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge

Addition by Toni Jordan

What a joy it is to kick off my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge with Toni Jordan’s debut novel, Addition, published in 2008. Addition is a gorgeous book, funny, sad, intelligent, quirky and involving. I found it in a State Library sale and started reading it while standing in a queue and put it down reluctantly to pay and drive home so I could finish.

Grace Vandenburg is easily the funniest fictional heroine I have come across in recent years. She is 35 years old and she counts the letters in her name (19), the pieces in a slice of orange cake and the number of bananas (10) she will buy. She keeps a photograph of Nikola Tesla by her bedside table and talks to him. Nikola gets numbers, like she does.  When she is obliged to leave Nikola to venture out and buy food, she makes sure she counts the numbers of steps to the supermarket.The boy at the checkout is “a handsome boy, twentysomething, with too much enthusiasm on his pink face,” while the man behind her in the queue is “reading Celebrity Nosejobs, or some other Pulitzer-winning publication picked from the display.” Imagine her horror when she discovers that she has only 9 bananas in her trolley. What is there to do except steal a banana from the man reading the magazine while distracting the boy at the checkout.

Grace, against her better instincts, falls in love. Seamus Joseph O’Reilly looks good in jeans and has sweet teeth, “like the milk teeth of a child.” He makes her blush and asks her if she’s a surgeon after watching her cut a slice of lemon tart into 38 equal pieces and she agrees to see him again. She tells herself sternly to stick to her rules because “who knows what could happen if I start making arbitrary decisions and upset the synchronised pattern of the universe?” What if the “Irish git” is so boring that she will once again lose the will to live?

Grace has a mother with a cat called Mr Parker, and a sister called Jill who “simmers French casseroles in a cast-iron pot and freezes the leftovers,” and a niece called Larry who is “all ungainly arms and legs like a new-born fawn.” She may have had a brother, or a puppy, or neither.

This book packs a punch. I laughed out loud at the acerbic Grace’s observations, even as I grew increasingly concerned with her slow decline into the darkness she dare not name. This is a modern story, set in a modern city (Melbourne) and these are people we may have seen or known without really seeing or knowing them. “Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at the sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments.” Exactly. I think I would have missed so much if I hadn’t met this book.