long novels

I”ve read a few long novels lately, starting with The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (reviewed last month), and have just finished her first book, The Secret History, published after eight years under the pen in 1992.

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First off, I like The Goldfinch better, and I’m glad I read it first. Tartt made a huge splash with her first book, and it has been much reviewed and discussed. So I won’t attempt a deep review here. Just a few impressions.

The story of the intelligent, awkward, reserved young man from a blue collar family in California who happens to land in a classy New England college, and almost by chance finds himself in a small, select group of students studying classical Greek with a brilliant professor who hand picks his students, is unusual, bringing together many strands: young adult angst and identity fragility, class consciousness and snobbery, elitism, Greek mythology and philosophy, the power of Dionysian ritual brought to life, a messy accidental death and a nasty, premeditated murder, incest, the corrosive effects of guilt and fear of being found out, unrequited love… and more. The story begins in the voice of the narrator, Ricard Papen, with these haunting words:

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

And tell it he does, at length, opening with the the murder of Bunny, the squeaky wheel in the small group of friends, then reflecting on his own fatal flaw: “A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” This is a story in which myth comes alive in unlikely modern dress. The irony of the narrative is that for much of the story, Richard sees through a glass darkly. He is excluded from the secret history, as are we, despite the opening confession. It takes 3/4 of the 629 pages before we understand the events that lead up to Bunny’s murder, and more before we discover the nature of the relationship of the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla, Camilla’s secret love for another member of the group, and the true nature of the remote but charming and charismatic figure of the professor who is the adored and admired mentor and centre of the group and secretly, revered as a father figure by Richard, who feels only shame, dislike and contempt for his natural parents.

Such stories cannot end with redemption. Instead, we have another death, this one self-administered, and each of the remaining friends, Richard tells us, declines into a sad, unglamorous, messy sort of life; love is unrequited, and all that promise, those glittering young lives, are wasted. The last few pages let the story down, I felt, giving us a summary of the rest of the lives of the minor characters, who were mere shadowy puppets on the wings of the main action. Only the last page or so revives the dark, sinister shadows that haunt the main story, when Richard sees Henry in a dream. Henry was the central figure in the Dionysian ritual that went so wrong, and the messy murder of Bunny. He was always enigmatic, secretive, a little sinister, and he died young. In Richard’s dream, he tells Richard … well, I won’t say, in case you haven’t read it. He then excuses himself, saying he is late for an appointment. So we are left wondering if this is a ghost, if he has some power beyond the grave still to affect those who loved him.

Why do I like The Goldfinch better? Starting with negatives, I find the characters in The Secret History remain shadowy and two-dimensional. Even the narrator, and I wonder if this is a deliberate narrative strategy. If it is Richard’s reserve, his shame about his background, his secrecy about his feelings, his lack of confidence, that keeps him an outsider to the group, seeing them only in part, too reticent to dig deeper and find out what’s really going on. So they are seen through his eyes, and we see them like figures in a sketch, with a lot of shading but not much definition. Similarly, what I find to be skippable prose at times may be because he gets preoccupied with superficial things, thoughts and pursuits, such as drunken partying with other college mates, and denies his own intellectual and moral virtues, selling them short, hiding them, going along with the crowd or the group until it is too late to make a stand, to separate himself, and he gets dragged into their dark, secret lives despite himself.

As I write about it, I see more in it, though I still found the actual reading of it less engaging and fulfilling than I did of The Goldfinch; there, I entered much more into the narrator’s life and the worlds he inhabited.

I have reserved her second book, My Little Friend, at the library.

 

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Lincoln and the end of slavery

Returning to this review, prompted by Facebook, I want to see Lincoln again!

Writing Lives

I don’t often write about movies here, but this one has caught my spirit in such a way that I must write about it.

My son  was called after Abraham Lincoln; my husband and I went to see “Mister Lincoln” a one man stage show, played by the great British actor, Roy Dotrice, when I was very pregnant. (It was a brilliant piece of theatre). We hadn’t decided on a name then. But I turned to my boy’s father during the performance, and said “Abraham’s a good name”, and he agreed.

If you haven’t seen Lincoln, it’s well worth it. It is a challenging film to watch, as it’s very dense with dialogue, and much of the politics and history is unfamiliar to one who is not American and has not studied American history. It focuses on Lincoln’s push to get the 13th amendment to the constitution passed. stating:

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My book of the year

Yes, I’m three years behind in my reading (at least). I’ve just read Donna Tartt’s 3rd novel, The Goldfinch, published by Little, Brown in 2013, and awarded the Pulitzer prize in 2014.

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The cover features a glimpse of the famous, priceless painting by Carl Fabritius (1654), which is the metaphorical subject of the novel, and the key to its plot and central character. The fact that the painting is only glimpsed through a tear in the cover page is a clever symbol for the part the painting plays in the life of Theo Deker, aged 13 when the story starts, and about 27 when it finishes. The image of it inside the cover of the actual book is dull and unremarkable. Here is another reproduction which shows something of its understated, imprisoned beauty more clearly.

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Theo and his mother visit the Museum of Modern Art to escape a rain storm and to fill in time while waiting to have an interview at Theo’s school about his suspension for smoking. Theo’s mother is beautiful, and loves him unconditionally. When he escapes from the Museum, shattered by a bomb blast, some hours later, he has lost her, and carries with him The Goldfinch. He doesn’t believe she is dead at first, because he couldn’t find her body as he stumbled and crawled around the room she had been in before the blast.

This loss, and the almost accidental acquisition of the painting, shape his life henceforth, her death the dividing mark between Before and After. I’m not going to summarise the plot; suffice to say that he drifts from being an awkward guest of a wealthy family whose son is his friend, to several years in Las Vegas with his father, a would-be reformed alcoholic who is addicted to pills and to gambling, then back to New York, where he finds refuge, comfort and some sort of purpose in living with Hobie, the elderly, eccentric, gentle and gifted furniture restorer. Hobie  was the business partner of an old man Theo tried to help as he lay dying in the Museum, who had given him Hobie’s address, and in another window of lucidity in his delirium, urged him to rescue The Goldfinch which lay, ripped from its frame, nearby.

So the book falls into three parts, each dense with detail and characters both high- and lowlife, in a plot that has many surprising twists and turns. The dramatic events which start Theo’s journey through life as an orphan, the reversals and cul de sacs that follow, and his character as an orphan who grows up, not without a strong moral sense, compassion, and capacity for love and devotion, but lost, despairing underneath, and finding solace in drugs, fraud and crime (including the theft of the priceless painting, which is a talisman for his mother), have inspired many reviewers to call the novel Dickensian. I can see the parallels but find it intensely modern, first of all in its setting, in the capitalist centres of New York, uptown and downtown, in Las Vegas and in the old world yet cosmopolitan European, unfriendly back streets and hotels of Amsterdam. Also in the rich, contradictory, tormented consciousness of Theo, the narrator-protagonist. Dickens’ characters are always seen from outside, even in the first person, whereas I feel, with Theo, that I am there with him, even in the most unlikely and desperate situations. At the same time, the characters he meets and is involved with are portrayed with deft strokes, vivid detail, and dialogue that is cadenced and convincing. One of the most three-dimensional characters is Boris, his streetwise friend from Las Vegas, who shares the unfortunate biography of a mother lost when he was young and a violent alcoholic father. Boris is Russian-Polish, and learnt to speak English in Australia, so he speaks a slightly stilted but colourful dialect. He is tougher than Theo, harder, and ultimately more optimistic, though he has his own suicidal trajectory. When Theo asks him, on their dark, dangerous adventure involving The Goldfinch in Amsterdam, why he shoots up (which Theo draws the line at), Boris replies that he is a ‘chipper’, who does it only on special occasions:

That said, Boris added somberly—blue movie light glinting off the teaspoon—I am alcoholic. Damage is done, there. I’m a drunk till I die. If anything kills me—nodding at the Russian Standard bottle on the coffee table—that’ll be it.

Why do I love this book? It had me gripped, in a world so unfamiliar, so rich and strange and often uncomfortable and dark, yet shot with intense shafts of light, a vision of life that I do not share yet can empathise with through Tartt’s magical storytelling. One such moment of intense light is early in the story, when Theo meets again with Pippa, a girl his own age who had been with the old man who died in the Museum. She  sustained a bad head injury in the blast, and is still recovering at Hobie’s when Theo sees her again, in bed in a darkened room, listening to classical music on her iPod. She gives Theo an earbud and they listen together to Palestrina. Theo had fallen in love with her when he had glimpsed her in the Museum before the blast; indeed, he had left his mother looking at paintings to make his way to the section where she was standing with the old man, which is how it happened that his mother was killed by the blast and he was not. Hobie appears at the door to tell Pippa it is time to go with her aunt to live.

The hem of a sheer curtain brushed a windowsill. Faintly, I heard traffic singing in the street. Sitting there on the edge of her bed, it felt like the waking-up moment between dream and daylight where everything merged and mingled just as it was about to change, all in the same, fluid, euphoric slide: rainy light, Pippa sitting up with Hobie in the doorway, and her kiss (with the peculiar flavor of what I now believe to have been a morphine lollipop) still sticky on my lips. Yet I’m not sure that even morphine would account for how light-headed I felt at that moment, how smilingly wrapped-up in happiness and beauty.

Loss is a strong theme in this book; Theo’s loss of his mother, of his father, of Pippa, who grows up to be with someone else, of The Goldfinch, of the double identity he has built up for himself in his life and work with Hobie. Outwardly, he is a successful businessman, who rescues Hobie’s world from bankruptcy. In reality, he jeopardises that world by selling fake antique furniture. The loss of The Goldfinch in Amsterdam (read the book to find out how) is his Damascus experience. Thereafter he returns to New York, to Hobie, and sets about making good the frauds he has committed by buying back the fake pieces. But there is no redemption for his soul, no romantic ending. He continues to believe that “life ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end”. But there is a twist: “as cruelly as the game is stacked, … it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy”. The joy comes from the moving qualities he finds in the impermanence of hotels, the moments of beauty, the spaces between the notes of music. Art survives death, and Theo’s love for that impossible golden bird has helped it, like other beautiful things, to ‘sing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.’

Of course, this begs the question of whether his long possession of the painting did really protect it, whether its survival was not a matter of chance and Boris’s underworld dealings as much as of Theo’s love for it. In some ways, the final message for me is itself as flawed as is Theo the character. But that doesn’t lessen my joy in it.

 

 

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War stories

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a Pulitzer prize winner and has been on the best selling list in Australia for some time.

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Yet I have put off reviewing it, just as I put off reading it. I bought it at the airport on my way to Perth at Christmas time, and read some of it on the plane. As soon as I found other books to read, I put it aside, and kept doing this until I had nothing left to read, then I finished it. I’m not sure why I was and am so lukewarm. This book has been critically acclaimed, and many reviewers on Goodreads give it 5 stars. I would give it 3 and a half. 3 for moral worthiness and invention and metaphorical intensity, and half for characterisation and narrative construction. It is an unusual war story, taking two children from opposite sides of the war, Nazi Germany and occupied France, and winding their semi-captive lives on separate spools until finally they weave together briefly, only to separate again. Perhaps this is part of my resistance. I feel their lives have been engineered by the author from the start, as if he’d said ‘how can I show how it was to be a child with few choices on each side of the war, and how, when they are brought together, they can both transcend the war and yet remain captured by it?’

This conscious construction is evident for me in the structuring of the story, which is told in brief, alternating episodes, counterpointed with episodes in another voice, that of an ageing, terminally ill Nazi officer hunting for a priceless treasure that the French girl is unknowingly keeper of. I found the toing and froing of the narrative very distracting, especially as the time frame keeps changing between remote and recent past and present, in no particular order (that I could see). Dates are put at the front of each section, but I had to keep referring back to them to keep track.

As for the characters, each of them is unusual, verging on deformed or damaged, in different ways. Marie-Laure, the French girl, is blind from the age of six, and so perforce lives in a world she cannot see yet imagines vividly through other senses. This become particularly intense in the climactic scenes when she is being hunted by the Nazi officer. He is bizarre in his insane obsession with the treasure and disregard of the bigger picture of which he is part. Werner, the German boy, is gifted, a self-taught genius in electronics, which wins him survival in a Hitler Youth school and a job hunting Resistance fighters. An orphan, his emotions are constricted, his main object of affection (in absentia for most of the story) being his sister, until he meets Marie-Laure, only to have to separate from her to save her life. Each character, in their own way, could unfold as a unique  and tragic /grotesque study in loss, obsession and survival. Intersecting their lives should intensify their strange beauty/grotesquerie. Clearly, many readers feel it does. It didn’t work for me. Marie-Laure seems more real than the others, but she is so rarefied and un-childlike, she remains an idea for me.

This book reminded me of The Book Thief. I was a dissenter from the admiration it received too. I find them both over-constructed, and for different reasons, disengaging.

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Memoir of late love

Elopement: a Memoir by Maureen Helen  is an engrossing read, which held my attention from start to finish. This although I had already read the story a couple of times, having edited an earlier draft and a later one. Maureen is a friend of mine, and I knew her during the years when she was living the life described here, and then writing the story of it.

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It seems an unlikely story — two septuagenarians, Maureen and John, life-long friends, falling in love a couple of years after the death of John’s first wife, and deciding to elope rather than have a family wedding. An interesting and risky choice, as was brought home to them when their friends and family found out. But not one they regretted, as they enjoyed their honeymoon in Paris and the south of France. The falling in love happens slowly, from its tiny beginnings on a holiday together in South Australia, to its unfolding while they work together to paint and restore John’s beloved old yacht, Amigo Diablo, and Maureen tentatively explores the pleasures and risks of sailing. Falling in love and getting married is the easy part. The hard part is living together for the first four years in the house John and his first wife had shared, and where she died painfully of cancer, nursed by John. Not only does Maureen feel out of place in a house saturated in the past and furnished in a style and in a suburb she does not like; she has given up her own pretty house and garden, her car, her independence, won over many years as a single parent, graduate/postgraduate student and career woman in allied health. She has a large and close family, who all accept and quickly grow to love John. But John’s smaller family are still grieving for their mother, and resent Maureen’s new place in their father’s life.

The most engaging quality of this book is the writer’s honesty. She is very frank about her turmoil of feelings, her resentment, regret, anger, and despair, which are not unrelieved, but increasingly affect her health and their relationship. She becomes ill, and there is a crisis, which brings about a fresh start and the fundamental changes on both sides needed for their relationship to recover, for their ‘earlier, unexpected old-age-love’ to re-emerge.

There are several risks Maureen takes in writing and publishing this memoir. First, to write a story of their love and shared life together while in the midst of it, so to speak; and to do this at an early stage of their marriage. This is a story that couldn’t wait to be told, since Maureen needed to write, which kept her spirit alive, and ‘time and tide wait for no (wo)man’. To write such a memoir which gives a frank picture of a marriage and its trials and discontents, and of the tensions and discords with family members, is a courageous act. To do it with the knowledge and blessing of the partner speaks volumes for the strength of their relationship and commitment to each other.

The theme which emerges most strongly for me is that celibacy and independence, Maureen’s lifestyle choice before she fell in love, can be a happy, fulfilling pathway; she gave up  more than she realised when she made the choice to marry. But Maureen is able to do things with John, like sailing, travelling in Australia and overseas, caravanning, that she would not have done alone at that stage of her life. The regret for what is lost that afflicts her through much of the years described is resolved, and a mutually satisfying balance is found.

The tension and empathic unease I felt through many pages dissolved, and I closed the book feeling happy, not only that my friend has found a new, fulfilling life, but that she has written a story of it which will engage, move and inspire readers.

 

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Neapolitan Quartet

The Story of a Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Anna Goldstein, and published in Australia by Text, is the final volume in the Neapolitan quartet, a mammoth work published over the last three years, by a pseudonymous Italian author. 9781925240511

When I finished the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, I was fascinated but ambivalent. This is part of my review of it, in an earlier blog I wrote, “A Mixed Bag: Books I’ve Read Lately”:

At best I can say this is an interesting and intriguing book but it didn’t grip me and make me want to see what happens after the end of the story. It gave me a window into an unfamiliar world, but I felt very much an outsider to it; perhaps this reflects how Elena felt, a misfit, longing to get outside the confines of this narrow world, trapped in it by her childhood, seeing education as her escape. Whereas Lila, the wild one, remains trapped. I will read the sequels.

As I’ve read the sequels, I have remained ambivalent. On the one hand, I admire the author’s immense skill in weaving the complex story of the lives of two friends and the large cast of characters who revolve around them in a strange galaxy where loyalty, love and creativity are inextricably mixed with hatred, lust, betrayal, manipulation and disillusionment. Where the central character, Elena or Lenu, educates herself out of her violent, impoverished, chaotic background, marries a professor and becomes a successful author and feminist theorist. Where her friend and soulmate, Lila, who she always suspects is more brilliant than she is, remains trapped in the Naples they were born into, but keeps drawing Lenu back into that world. Where serially they love and abandon the radical, brilliant man from their neighbourhood who uses and betrays them. Lenu, the narrator, struggles to tell the story of their friendship, to distil the essence of her friend, and ultimately fails. In the process, Lenu loses the love of her life (through disillusionment) and Lila loses her daughter, a little girl of seven who mysteriously disappears. They grow old, Lila disappears, and Lenu asks: “What is the point of these pages, then? I intended to capture her, to have her beside me again, and I will die without knowing if I succeeded.” Then, she receives a parcel roughly wrapped in newspaper. To reveal what is in it would be even more of a spoiler than those I’ve already given away. Suffice to say, it  is a relic from their childhood together, and Lenu is unable to interpret it, and is left with two conflicting stories of their entwined destinies: one of deception, one of the return of friendship. “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity.”

Obscure it remains, and perhaps that is why I am ambivalent. Perhaps I am an incurable romantic and redemptionist, and want the characters in a story to reach some sort of resolution or at least awareness. Perhaps these Neapolitan stories are too postmodern for me, too open-ended, ambiguous, unresolved, like a secret that has no heart, kept alive only by the mystery. So although I was compelled to keep reading till I finished, I quickly forgot the world I had witnessed, and the only thing that has made me revisit it is a wish to tidy my desk by writing a blog about it so I can put it away on the shelf.

 

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Memoir of bushfire survivor

All the Days After, by Sue Gunningham, Finch Publishing 2015, is a compelling story of a woman’s grief and journey of love beyond Black Saturday, the day when the catastrophic fires began in Victoria , 7 February 2009.

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From the Black Saturday website:

The Black Saturday Bushfires killed 173 people, injured 414 people, destroyed 2,100 homes and displaced 7,562 people. 120 people were killed by a single fire in the Kinglake Area alone. It is estimated the energy released by the Black Saturday Bushfires, was the equivalent of 1,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs. In total 1,100,000 acres were burnt.

 

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One of those killed was Sue Gunningham’s partner, Barry, who was caught in the heart of the fire at their cottage. Sue spoke to him on the phone half an hour before he died (as was later established by forensic evidence from the site, including his remains found in the underground bunker he had built).

Sue is unable to accept that Barry is dead, and frantically tries to reach the site. When she finally does, she still has trouble accepting reality, and believes that somehow he will be found alive. Meanwhile, she has to go through all the long drawn out and tedious, often traumatic, processes of identification of his remains (over which there is a battle between her and his officious and possessive executor), the rounds of interviews with police, case managers, psychologists and the Victoria Bushfire Royal Commission. Many of the people involved are supportive and compassionate. She does ultimately reach a compromise with grief, in that she acknowledges his death, but keeps him alive in her daily life by rebuilding their cottage (which has to meet the requirements for safety and access brought in from the review process), keeping his ashes, some teddies he gave her, and a pillowcase of memorabilia. She also confronts his executor and tells him what she thinks of him. A year later, she has succeeded in having a large shed built to store her tools, with a stretcher and a small stove so she can camp there overnight; so now at least she can restore the garden. She has a life, transitioning to retirement, doing art classes, a member of a local writing group, travelling, going to the opera and theatre. Her life “still centres on Barry but it is a life of my own making.” Sustained by memories, she has learned to do many things she never would have considered possible before 2009, and her days at Waldene are joyful and peaceful. “Barry is always with me and I am grateful for every day that we had together.”

Grief is complicated, and the notion that the bereaved needs to let go of the loved one is challenged by this book. What makes it very readable and engaging is the author’s honesty. She is not ashamed of her refusal to let go, and wins for herself a life where her loved one is still the centre of her life. Some readers may not be comfortable with this. I had some qualms about it, but by the time I finished the book, I accepted that this is not a pathological state, it is one of healing and intelligent, brave love.

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