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.
Well, theories of memory, mostly, along with narrative inquiry mixed with a dash of ethnographic self reflexive research. This ‘essential’ reading has been for the essay I’m writing as part of my PhD. When I look at the piles of books on the floor of my study, I realise I’ve also been reading other ‘essential’ books – books that keep me sane, although my husband may have another point of view – it’s all about the definition of sanity, apparently. I read Kunal Basu’s 2007 book Racists, a chilling story about a pair of scientists who decide on the ultimate experiment – to raise a pair of children, one black, one white, on an uninhabited island off the coast of Africa. Set in 1855, it raises disturbing questions on the assumptions of racial superiority and left me with a sense of unease and anger. Just after this I picked up Hari Kunzru’s debut novel, The Impressionist, a hefty 500 page door stopper. This is also about race, set in British India. The main character is an Anglo Indian child dashing through imperial India, England and Africa, alternately searching for and escaping from his true identity. Overly long, with dense descriptions I flicked through, this is still funny and tragic and atmospheric, a book that requires some persistence. I also read the fabulous Joan London’s luminous book, The Good Parents. It taps into every parent’s insecurity over their children while meditating on the nature of choices and relationships that bind and separate. The book follows young Maya from country WA to Melbourne where she inexplicably disappears. Her parents look for her and struggle with their own past among Buddhist nuns, enigmatic Chinese girls and East European gangland bosses. This is a beautiful book, full of loss and poetry. Another book about parents and the choices, often disastrous, they make about their children, is M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. Set on a remote island off the coast of WA, a young lighthouse keeper and his wife decide to keep something that is not theirs. What follows is a beautifully crafted story about the consequences of that act. Local writer Yvette Walker’s book, Letters To The End Of Love left me wandering around lost for a few days, so powerful were the worlds she creates and so beautiful the writing that it spoke directly to me. Three couples in three places in three different times, write letters to each other. The Perth letters are like the city itself, sharp and clear and resonant with foreboding. The Cork letters also reflect the landscape, soft and grey and reflective. The Bournemouth letters are energetic despite the background of war and the difficulties of love. I loved this book. And finally, Annabel Smith’s latest book, The Ark. It is unlike any book I’ve read before and I couldn’t put it down. I read it in two days. I didn’t do anything else, I might add. I tried to feel guilty about the neglected essay I’m supposed to be writing. Then I persuaded myself research is reading, surely. The Ark is set in a dystopian future where a group of people responsible for 5 billion plant seeds bunker down in the facility known as The Ark, while Chaos rules the rapidly diminishing world outside. It’s a clever, funny and disturbingly prophetic sounding book and I will need to go back and read it again, along with the app that invites me to tour the bunker. And now, I really need to go back to the decolonised, subcontinental, post- structuralist methodology I was working on. I’m already traumatised. Feel free to send me some book recommendations.
Posted in Books and writing
Tagged Annabel Smith, books, childhood, cities, Hari Kunzru, Joan London, Kunal Basu, M.L.Stedman, reading, reviews, Yvette Walker
Lynne Leonhardt’s debut novel takes us to a gentler and a more violent time in our history – a paradox that is managed in this novel with grace and clarity. This is a book about people and relationships in times of change, of war, of displacement. And it’s so much about the place of displacement that the landscape becomes as much a character in this book as its four feisty women and the lost heroic Jasper of the title.
The post-war West Australian landscape of the 1950s is rich with loss and abundance in equal measure. ‘All that remained of the backyard was a tangle of dried grasses. Gold, brown, silver. Everything half-dead, drab, blurring into the landscape. The forest in the distance was simply a smudge -‘ (page 109). Against this background, three women, the fourth still a child, learn to co-exist.
There are three generations of women on a farm in a remote corner of the south-west of Western Australia. There’s matriarchal, colonial Audrey, lost in memories of Ceylon and a soldier husband, her world-weary daughter Attie who keeps body, soul and farm together, the English war bride Valerie and her young daughter Gin. Gin realises early in life that there are two distinct worlds. ‘One for children. One for adults. One for her mother and one for herself, and nothing in between.’ (page 11). Valerie, the languid Englishwoman, with her cigarettes and headaches, bitterly committed to hating the rude country that marriage to Jasper has brought her to, is barely likeable. Her flaws are presented in contrast to the good-tempered Audrey, the sensible Attie and the neglected Gin. Yet, like all deeply flawed characters, tragedy follows her like a ghost, making her actions believable , if not excusable.
This is a gentle, meditative book, one that reveals its insights slowly. It situates its characters in their time and landscape convincingly. I loved Attie and Gin and the way they grow to love each other, this aunt-and-niece pair who reminded me of my own relationships with my aunts when I was growing up, in another time and place. I look forward to a second reading.
Author – Lynne Leonhardt
Publisher – Margaret River Press, 2012
Perth – David Whish-Wilson
I have called Perth home for the last 30 years and what a fabulous home it has been. I came to Perth as a young adult and raised a family, acquired friends and employment and learned to accept life, as the poet says, with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child. Reading Perth reminded me why I love my adopted hometown. This biography of Perth by David Whish-Wilson is not merely a loving one; it is an intuitive and acute rendering of a city that so many (including one of my favourite West Australians, Tim Winton) have called Dullsville.
The book has four sections which flow as seamlessly as the title of the first section – The River. There is a poetic presence in this section especially and the novelist’s eye for detail, as this passage on page 30 reveals – ‘So the river was a haven for me. It was a place that reminded me of the one I’d left behind, where spiders and goannas and parrots and eagles had ruled the gullies, mud crabs and hermit crabs and mudskippers had populated the mangroves, and wild donkeys and kangaroos had filled the spaces now taken up by people. It was in the yellow sands and quarried limestone crags and bronzed shallows that I felt most at home as a child newly arrived from the desert.’ Whish-Wilson moves between the personal and the political effortlessly, allowing glimpses of the city through his viewpoint while adding historical and geographical details in a way that doesn’t read like a history lesson. Of particular delight to me were the frequent and generous references to portraits of Perth rendered by other West Australian writers. Whether it’s Gail Jones describing jellyfish or Robert Drewe’s characters walking through ‘this double city’, each literary reference links to a fascinating feature of the city and its inhabitants. ‘For a child of the suburbs, the city was never heard and it was never smelled –’ p.47.
All the colourful characters from Perth’s boom-bust 80s are mentioned – Alan Bond and his failed enterprises, along with a poignant description of Bond’s empty offices on the fiftieth floor of the building that had carried his name when he was at the height of his popularity. My sympathy dissipated with the knowledge that Bond’s ugly tower was built by demolishing the luxurious late 1800s Palace Hotel.
It isn’t easy to describe the light Perth people know too well – the light that makes you squint at 6 am on a summer morning and hold your hand in a half salute when looking towards the sun. David Whish-Wilson knows this and describes it beautifully – the ‘double effect of the scalpel-sharp light and the general impression of space and silence and stillness –’ p.120. Of course, space and silence and stillness – it must be Perth. I wish I’d written that sentence.
As a Perth-dweller, this book was just what I needed. The writer has captured my city’s ambiguity, careless sprawl, stunning landscape, weird characters and an essential Perth-ness. My experience of my city is richer for it and I recommend it highly.