Supposedly Human, the World’s Shame

Between Enemies
Andrea Molesini, trans. Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh
Allen & Unwin
November 2015
AU $29.99

between_enemiesAndrea Molesini’s Between Enemies is an eloquent tale of occupation, collaboration and resistance set in WWI.  Based on true events, it follows the aristocratic Spada household as their property is requisitioned by German soldiers, then Austrians.  Their village is occupied.  Eventually the whole household as well as several villagers are drawn to resist the occupiers.

Told from the perspective of 17-year-old Paolo, writing as an adult some ten years later, the story is full of high drama, but also nostalgia and melancholy.  Because the narrator is a teenage boy during the events, the story is also sadly filled with the objectification of Paolo’s crush Giulia.  While this is probably realistic, it’s a little tiresome to read, especially when the novel purports to say something about the natures of men and women and their relationships*.  This is usually by way of commentary delivered by Paolo’s eccentric but wise grandfather, and manages to be the same sort of thing supposedly wise men always say about women in stories of this kind.  If authors** could stop doing that, that would be swell. Continue reading

Did I Choose Something I Should Regret?

The Little Red Chairs
Edna O'Brien
Literary fiction
Allen & Unwin
December 2015

9780571316281Firstly allow me to apologise for being spotty this past month.  NaNo, family engagements and now illness have quashed my ability to write all that much of anything that was not my current novel project, or indeed anything at all since the start of December.  Distressing.  But let us set that aside, because the novel I’m reviewing this week, The Little Red Chairs is a fair bit more distressing, since it deals with the aftermath of the Bosnian War and genocide.

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Politician’s Funeral Pyre

The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press
November 2015

the_sympathizerThe Vietnam War, it will be no news to anyone, has had considerable impact on world history, both as a national tragedy for Vietnam and in its global cultural impacts.  It sparked a mass movement of people around and out of Vietnam and the rest of Indochina.  The song I’ve posted above is apparently about this migration.  I couldn’t find any English translation of the lyrics and sadly do not know any useful Vietnamese.  The Sympathiser follows the story of a migrant, the Captain, who journeys to the US as a refugee and sleeper agent for the Viet Cong.

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The Face of Jesus in my Soup

The Book of Memory
Petina Gappah
Faber & Faber
September 2015

the_book_of_memoryThe Book of Memory is Petina Gappah’s first novel, a tightly woven tale of privilege and prison, of Zimbabwe, and of course memory.  It is the fictional memoir of the convicted murderer, Memory.  She has been asked to write in service of a potential appeal against her death sentence.

Memory is an albino woman.  Sent away as a child from her home in one of Harare’s townships to live with a white man, Lloyd, she struggles to find a sense of belonging and of self.  She feels neither black nor white; her birth family has rejected her; and with her Cambridge education she is at great odds with her fellows in the Chikurubi Prison.  We see as she pieces together clues from her life, trying to work out how it arrived at this ugly point.  Of course she professes her innocence of the murder. Continue reading

Didn’t Mean to Make You Cry

Early One Morning
Virginia Baily
Virago
September 2015

early_one_morningEarly One Morning, Virginia Baily’s second novel, is a powerful tale of loss and love in Rome.  Always a little leery of books about Italy in general, and somewhat underwhelmed by the title, I was pleasantly surprised by the book.  It is a beautifully written and poignant story.

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Close Your Eyes, Pay the Price for Your Paradise

The Heart Goes Last
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury
24 September 2015
hardcover

the_heart_goes_lastMargaret Atwood’s latest novel is an incisive critique of our current society.  Neoliberalism and the prison industrial complex, as well as nostalgia for a non-existent, rosy mid-20th century, all cop a wry humoured nudging.  Not a bashing; Atwood would never be so unsubtle.

Charmaine and Stan are at their wits’ end.  Struggling to get by in the depths of an economic depression and a society barely holding itself together, they live in their car and can see no way out of their deepening poverty.  Fortunately, they are eligible to participate in a well funded social experiment, the Positron Project.  They will be provided with a house, with employment, and with the safety of a gated community, in return for spending every second month as prisoners in the Positron Prison. Continue reading

You are My Moon in My Night

1Q84
Haruki Murakami. trans. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Vintage
2011

1Q84At the great risk of sounding insufferably pretentious, I am a fan of Haruki Murakami. I first received Kafka on the Shore for Christmas in 2005, when I had just recently returned from my first trip to Japan as part of a high school study tour. My mind thoroughly blown, I searched for other Murakami books and have enjoyed most of them. It must be confessed, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle sits half finished on my shelf. But I loved A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance and Sputnik Sweetheart. And I read Norwegian Wood at precisely the right time of my life, in my early 20s and on holiday. Though it remains one of my favourite books, I’m afraid to reread it and lose the magic of that first emotional sweep. So with all that said, of course I wanted to melt similarly into 1Q84 in all its expected weirdness, letting the musical references sail over my head like I usually do.

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They Live in You

BlueBtwSkyAndWater_smTHE BLUE BETWEEN SKY AND WATER
Susan Abulhawa
Bloomsbury, June 2015, RRP $29.99

The Blue Between Sky and Water is one of those rare novels that takes devastating themes and events, but fills them all with a sense of hope.  Set in Palestine during and after the Naqba, up until the mid-2010s, the novel could very easily have been many things.  While its bias is obvious*, Abulhawa avoids diatribe and sentimentality in building her story of a family and a country torn apart.

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And Wish that I Had a Mother

ArchipelagoOfSouls_smARCHIPELAGO OF SOULS
Gregory Day
Picador, June 2015, RRP $32.99

Archipelago of Souls appealed to me at first glance.  Its main character, Wesley Cress, arrives as a soldier settler on King Island and provides an instant link to my own family history.  My father and his brothers and sisters grew up for the most part on King Island after my grandfather took land there as a soldier settler himself.  Though the book is set probably 15 years or so before my family arrived there, I couldn’t help wondering if the (in)famous Kelly Quirk might make an appearance somehow.  That’s the power of half-remembered family legend, I suppose.

When I was 18 or so, we took a family trip to King Island to look at the old farm, which had been sold on to another family some decades again.  We went in June or July, for peak wind effect, and spent a few days in family reunion.  I never met my grandfather.  I’ve heard some of his ludicrous stories, tales about his … let’s call them “adventures” on the island and his youth, of his alcoholism and his time during the war.  My dad and my grandma, Na, also died when I was five and 14 respectively; and on the island I felt very connected with them despite their absense.  So the cold trip on the isolated island remains a powerful memory.  King Island is part of the family mythology.

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Is There a Place Where You are Sacred? Is There a Place where You Can Run?

Rise_smRISE
Karen Campbell
Bloomsbury Circus, May 2015, RRP $32.99

Rise is a small piece in the history of Scotland’s many and various failed nationalist efforts since 1707.  Having concluded that rosy-cheeked young pretenders make poor generals, and that kilts and chest-thumping are best left to post-football pub brawls (or race riots), the modern independence-minded Scot has turned to the plebiscite as a method of experimentation*.  Those of you familiar with Scottish history will probably see that this step is a bit dull, but for the best.

Despite misgivings about the author’s surname “Campbell”**, but moreso about the unlikelihood that I would enjoy this book, since I don’t generally enjoy contemporary fiction, I decided to give Rise a go.  More interested in the political themes than the plot itself, I’m glad I did.  However, though it is well-written and genuinely gripping, I was sadly correct in my initial assumption that the novel was not for me.

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To Let Our Country Live

WhenTheDovesDisappearWHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED
Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola M. Rogers
Atlantic Books, May 2015, RRP $27.99

When the Doves Disappeared is a thoughtful glimpse into Estonian life during occupation by Nazi Germany, and the subsequent USSR rule.  It is a study in the meaning of political conviction; passion; loyalty; and love, amongst many other things.  Estonian-Finnish poet Sofi Oksanen’s second novel, it is both espionage thriller and literary reflection, with a gripping plot, elegant language, and carefully crafted, deeply flawed characters.

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The Magi Can Go Home Too, Everyone Can Go Home

ThisHouseIsNotForSale_smTHIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE
E.C. Osondu
Granta, June 2015, RRP $29.99

E.C. Osondu second story collection, This House is Not For Sale is a collection of short stories surrounding the residents of the Family House.  It is a slim volume that packs a punch, provoking thoughts about the nature of truth and story.  Characters and events take on a mythic quality as they are related by the unnamed, unidentified narrator.

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