Questions of meaning: what do we look for in a good novel?

urlAt last, I’ve read the book that was awarded the Miles Franklin in 2013 and several other prizes,  including the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction.

Like many other reviewers I’ve checked out on Goodreads, I’m mystified by the awards and the rave reviews. This is a book I wish I hadn’t read. Then why did I? Because I wanted to find out what/if I’d missed out, to find out why respected writers and literary reviewers find it so good. I should have listened to my instinct, to avoid award winning books unless readers I trust recommend them. I’ve had so many disappointments.

I kept reading it because I hoped it would get better, and I hoped to find out what, apart from the artificial linking of the plot, connected the two lives, of Laura (Australian) and of Ravi (Sri Lankan), that are run in counterpoint throughout the novel. The answer is, on one level, the fact that they are both travellers, with no home: one dispossessed by her birth and upbringing, one cast out by the violence of the brutal murder of his wife and child. On another level, as far as I can see, the only connection is the artificial one made by the author. From opposite sides of the world they are finally brought together in the same workplace in Sydney, and have a few encounters in the work car park. Then Laura, in late middle age, lost again, at a loose end, decides to travel to Sri Lanka, and Ravi, after a long wait for asylum in Australia, decides to return home. One wonders if the final encounter, as the pages (so many! 515) of the book run out, will bring some deeper meaning. There is only a watery answer. For those of you, like me, who’ve avoided reading this book so far, or simply overlooked it, I won’t say more on that.

Why do I dislike it? Frankly, dear reader, I was bored a lot of the time, mystified at others, and occasionally engaged by a catching image or a moment of humour or compassion. I was bored by the two-dimensional characters, the flatness of the narrative, the concatenation of events which often seem disconnected, the intrusiveness of bits of information that don’t seem to have any connection with the characters or what is happening to them — like debris of the author’s consciousness. I was alienated by the lack of any vision beyond the emptiness and loneliness underlying the surface of people’s lives. I was bored by the endless trivia of their lives and the world around them, especially of the workplace (publisher of travel books) where Laura and Ravi finally meet. I was bored by all the secondary characters that appear and disappear and are not developed.

I was mystified by the feeling that the author had some overarching plan, intricately worked out, tying all these threads and fragments together, and that it escaped me. What have I missed? Why can I not enjoy what many others claim to enjoy? Beyond this, what makes judges tick? What are they looking for?

I have no answers, but I trust my own judgement. I don’t recommend this book.

So what do I look for in a good contemporary novel? Believable characters and situations, good writing, clarity, a vision of the world which is both familiar and new, and a narrative which allows the characters to develop lives of their own. And surprise, and space for the imagination to work.

What about you?


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The Golden Age by Joan London

9780857989000 Joan London‘s quiet and moving story of children afflicted by polio, in a children’s convalescent hospital in Perth named The Golden Age, has won the 2015 Kibble award for literature, and in my opinion, deservedly so. It is  a historical novel, set in the age of innocence of Perth (as echoed in the title) — blighted in the 1950s, when the dreadful epidemic of polio struck and took many young lives, and left many more crippled for life. I was a child of the 40s and 50s, but was fortunate in living in outback NSW, with little contact with other children or adults; so I escaped. I do remember, as a teenager at boarding school, taking the Salk polio vaccine on a lump of sugar; this became available in 1957. There was a children’s convalescent hospital called The Golden Age from 1949 to 1959 in Leederville, Perth. The novel is also a love story of two young teenagers, Frank and Elsa, who find in each other their twin soul, and survive with grace while they are together, but are bereft when they are expelled from the hospital for expressing their love in physical intimacy. I confess this is the first time I have read Joan London; she has been on my horizon for some years, and now I will be seeking out the rest of her books. Tegan Bennett Daylight has written a long, loving review of this book, published recently in the Sydney Review of Books.  Daylight offers a resonant definition of good writing:

Perhaps the best definition of good writing is the kind that recreates this safe aloneness, this suspended awareness of the self, this being lost but at the same time attached.

Safe aloneness, she implies, following the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, is also something that children need to learn: the capacity to be alone in the presence of the mother, and beyond that, in her absence. This difficult lesson is one that all the children in The Golden Age have to learn, abruptly and yet seemingly endlessly, again and again, every day, every night, always hoping and longing to go home. Some of them do not see their parents at all; most only see them occasionally. The parents, too, are bereft — at least the loving ones are — and many of them have to battle poverty, the demands of other small children in the family, public transport and walking or begging a lift, to see their ill child. All this is conveyed in subtle and sensuous detail, without labouring the point. Above all, I find London an unobtrusive author; her characters and their world inhabit the page without the intrusive sense of an author pulling the strings that I often get with contemporary novels. At least 19th century novelists were direct and unashamed about their omniscience. Contemporary writers tend to use more indirect methods, like complex structural devices, shifting and ambiguous point of view and obscure plot shifts. More of this in my next blog, which will be about Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel.

I won’t relate the story here; Daylight’s review is a good start if you want this. What is memorable for me is the slow and subtle realisation of a microcosm, the hospital, within the macrocosm of sleepy, hot, dusty Perth. This was very real for me, partly because I lived in Perth for many years, though I went there at the end of the 70s, a couple of decades after the time of this story. But many of the sensuous qualities of this provincial city are re-awakened for me here; little glimpses of a familiar world. Here is Meyer, the Hungarian father of Frank:

Meyer stepped out of the factory into an evening so warm and light that as if by instinct he turned at once towards the river and started to walk…. He saw watermelon clouds piled up above the dark breast of the river and smelt the weedy flow of its depths. A fresh-water breeze found him and, like a puppy, licked his face and neck, breathed cool life back into him.

Frank’s parents are refugees from the Holocaust, bring their dark and bitter past with them. Frank, too, has memories of the war years, of living in hiding with an elderly mother and daughter who have given him refuge while his mother works incognito and his father is in a labour camp in the Ukraine. This is the beginning of loneliness for Frank:

It was the beginning of himself. Up until then he hadn’t really felt sad or frightened, his mother had done that for him. As long as she was there, he didn’t have to fear. He was part of her, and like a mother cat she had attended to every part of him. Now each morning, while Hedwiga was busy with Julia [her aged mother], he pissed into the chamber-pot and pulled on his own pants. He buttoned up his woollen vest and slowly, seriously, as his mother had instructed him, ran a wet comb through his hair. For a while he felt a silence in the air around him, an emptiness at his elbow. If he fell over who would pick him up? He had an impulse to crawl, in order to feel safer, but Julia told him to stand up and walk on his two feet. He did everything that Julia told him to do, as his mother had instructed.

Safety, calm, and the peace of sharing a secret world, is what he finds with Elsa. Here is Elsa’s view of their relationship, shortly before they are cast out of The Golden Age (echoes of the Garden of Eden here):

When did everything start to change? Suddenly Frank’s face had become familiar to her. Not handsome, not unhandsome, but like her own, a sort of twin, a mirror. Their connection seemed to fill the air around them. From the moment they woke up to the light glowing behind the long white curtains in their separate dormitories, they were waiting to rejoin each other.

After their fall from this state of innocence, which could only be sustained while the institution turned a blind eye to it, everything changes. The loss is greater than the original loss of wholeness and health, though there is hope of reunion. I won’t reveal the denouement and the aftermath, but I do agree with Daylight, that the ending, set 50 years later in New York, is an abrupt change that for me breaks the spell of the timeless, suspended state of the main story, tying up the loose ends in a knot that can’t be undone rather than leaving us to imagine what their lives, together or apart, were like in adulthood. The one flaw, for me, in a rare book. On the same note, I don’t like the cover design, which suggests a middle aged Frank looking back through a window; nothing to do with the structure of the narrative, the main content of it, or the ending.


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Grace and Passion: Obama’s eulegy

Liam Viney’s beautiful reflection on Obama’s amazing sermon/eulogy in The Conversation is well worth reading, both for its appreciation of Obama’s mastery and grace, and for its insights into how music can go where words alone cannot. This eulogy must go down in history and literature as one of the great English language speeches of all time, along with other iconic American and British ones, and the 17th century poet and priest John Donne’s legendary sermon (preached by him wrapped in his funeral shroud), Death’s Duel. Passion, rhetoric and theatre are the arts of our community celebrations of the great passages of life — birth, marriage, death — and of celebrations of our common humanity.

Obama’s Amazing Grace shows how music can lift oratory high

July 1, 2015 6.10am AEST

When the President of the United States burst into song on the weekend, music amplified the emotional force of his words. EPA/Richard Ellis

Where words leave off, so music begins – Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) Amazing grace, amazing grace … (trailing off). Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (now singing) – Barack Obama, 2015.

Barely a week after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launch provided a problematic example of music in the political sphere, Barack Obama’s eulogy at the Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston, South Carolina provided the polar opposite; an example of how music can propel oratory into regions of meaning and impact that most politicians can only dream of. To be sure, the two events are categorically distinct on many levels; Trump’s campaign launch (likely attended by paid actors) sits firmly in the political sphere (or the commedia dell’arte sphere, depending on your viewpoint), whereas a funeral, even one freighted with political issues, connects with music more readily through the raw and exposed emotional nerve endings of the people in attendance. Yet music played a fascinating role at both events, and in each case, context was everything. Unlike the Trump campaign launch, however, Obama’s most recent public musical moment (there have been others) has reverberated positively around the world. Only a hard heart could fail to respond on some emotional level when the President of the United States of America, eulogising at one of the most emotionally and racially charged funerals in US history, started singing Amazing Grace. Only blindness could deny the power of witnessing the US’s first president of colour break into song, powerfully illustrating his connection to one of the most musically rich religious communities on Earth (the African American Church generally), galvanising an entire nation into finding strength in a time of great need. Obama’s words alone that day would have been enough to inspire awe. His performance approached the emotional intensity of a sermon, and subsequent speakers were compelled to anoint him “Reverend President”. Compared to the anodyne and anaemic cultural engagement leaders of most Western neo-liberal democracies exhibit, it was hard not to be transported back to the heady days of Obama’s election win in 2008 by the centred charisma he showed onstage.

The power of the moment

Near the end of an almost 40-minute eulogy, after a perfectly-judged rhetorical crescendo, Obama paused, bowed his head, and gently launched into a rendition of the first verse of Amazing Grace: A re-reading of the names of the shooting victims follows, and the climax of the eulogy is reached. Many news stories that feature video of the event cut into the moment a split-second before Obama sings, and only some include the subsequent reading of names. But to fully understand the power of the moment, it’s worth going further back into the textof the eulogy. The theme of grace, God’s grace here, was threaded throughout. And like a great symphonist embarking on a lengthy musical journey, Obama drops his theme right at the beginning: the first thing he’d noticed upon meeting Rev. Pinckney had been his “graciousness”.

Obama builds his theme

After beautifully describing the Reverend’s biographical embodiment of graciousness, Obama pivots from the personal to the general. As Pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pinckney was profoundly connected to the history of African American religious culture. The references to history open the door to a political dimension, which comes a bit later. He then twice describes the alleged killer as “blinded” by hatred, saying “he would not see the grace” of the people he would soon murder. Obama was clearly building his rhetoric around the last line of the first verse of Amazing Grace:

was blind, but now I see.

Obama then explicitly refers to grace as the central theme of the eulogy:

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.

He quotes lines from Amazing Grace, described the local community’s reaction as graceful, and referred to the grace shown by the victims’ relatives upon facing the alleged killer. Pondering the opportunity grace provides further, Obama again uses blindness to bring up a list of acutely painful issues for American society: blindness to the pain cause by the Confederate flag, to the role of past injustice in present-day problems, to poverty, to endemic problems in education and employment, to the criminal justice system, to recent problems with law enforcement, and to voting issues. Ultimately though, it is gun violence that Obama settles on. He implores Americans to approach the issue with open hearts, to find “reservoirs of goodness” that will allow grace to emerge. He then says:

If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace.

He trails off. Then he pauses. The pause generates electricity, it suggests something is about to happen, and it makes people listen. Like musicians who don’t begin a performance until an audience has fully settled, Obama wants silence in the space before music. In lesser hands, this moment could have been a corny disaster, and as an artistic moment, people are free to find it such. Critical discussion in most of the press, however, seems to have judged it a success – testament to Obama’s consummate skill as a political performer. Don’t forget, Obama had just spoken the words “amazing grace” twice, and trailed off. When he then started singing Amazing Grace, he was literally re-creating Heine’s philosophical perspective on music’s post-linguistic status. Adding melody on the third repetition was not only a great segue, but at a fundamental dramatic, theatrical, and philosophical level, pretty clever. Many things then happen in quick succession. The church leaders behind him spontaneously beam, voice their pleasure at what is happening, and stand to join in. The congregation, surprised to find itself feeling so good about what is happening (it is a funeral after all) doesn’t cheer so much as collectively smile audibly, then sings too. The musicians figure out what key he is in and improvise an accompaniment (almost certainly unscripted). Of course there are some who may have reacted negatively. Amazing Grace is so ubiquitous as to almost warrant cliché status. The 18th-century English slave-owner turned abolitionist John Newton penned the words, and the melody we know today has been associated with those words since the 1830s and the Second Great Awakening. Used ever since in countless different contexts, especially since the 1950s, Amazing Grace is in danger of losing its power thanks to over-familiarity. For the purposes of this eulogy, however, the singing of Amazing Grace was a perfect tool to take the political message into stratospheric emotional territory.

Three classic notes

The opening three notes outline the most ubiquitous structure in post-1600 Western music – the major triad. But they are arranged in a particular way: the first note, sung to “ah-”, is not the strongest of the three notes, but it leads into the most structurally stable, sung to “-maz-”. The rhythmically longer “-maaaaz-” mirrors the way we speak the word when we want to emphasise it – as in, “wasn’t that speech amaaazing”. By the third note on “zing”, we certainly know which song we’re hearing. These three notes resonate on deeper levels for anyone familiar with American music of the past. Just one example: Aaron Copland’s seminal Appalachian Spring (1944) is built on the same material, derived in turn from the opening figure to the traditional Shaker song Simple Gifts. These three notes, outlining what’s called a second-inversion triad, create a beautiful, open sound. It’s this open sound that Copland uses throughout Appalachian Spring to depict the vast openness of possibility represented by the story of young pioneer love in the original ballet, and it’s the same open sound that gives Amazing Grace the open heartedness that Obama was campaigning for in his words about gun violence. Back to Obama’s singing: another thing happens on “zing” – Obama sings a bit flat. Naturally, as a singer without formal training, who has had certain other things to attend to recent years, he may have just not have the best singing technique. Intonation insecurity and dubiously executed melismata were balanced by an undeniable connection to African American musical culture. That flatness was very likely Obama channelling the blues. These observations pale in comparison to the overall impact this part of the eulogy delivers. It is thanks to the way music lifts the words about grace out of the quotidian, that Obama can then ride a wave of emotion to the end of the eulogy. He goes through the names of the dead again, appending “found that grace” to each name, in a full and passionate voice. The soaring effect he creates builds on the music we just heard. “That grace” is a grace that’s had new and deeper meaning conferred upon it by the song. His reading of each name is a righteous call, in full sermon mode, and the audience responds each time in a cathartic final acknowledgement of the victims. The musicians continue to riff, accompanying the whole antiphonal interaction, commenting on Obama’s words right to the end. This subtle musical background ensures the emotional vibration continues and elevates the final moments of the eulogy. By this stage Obama has carried the congregation into the realm of truly powerful communication, underpinned by a musically-accessed emotional state. The way in which the Obama let music take over where “words left off” demonstrates music’s capacity for consolation in a profoundly important way. And it is salutary to consider that only a culture that understands music, that knows music, that values music, and that realises it needs music, will be able to benefit from it in this way. If people were moved by Barack Obama’s eulogy, it was ultimately music, as much as God’s grace, that made them see.

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A mixed bag: books I’ve read lately

Today I’m going to try something new: not a full post on a particular book, but brief reviews of books I’ve read in the past month. None of them, for me, warrant a full review, apart from the Finch Memoir Prize 2015, Schools of Fish, by Alan Sampson; I reviewed this in my last blog of June 13th, as a worthy winner of the prize. My list today is: Ross Poldark  by Winston Graham; My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; and Persuasion by Jane Austen (a re-read).   ross-poldarkRoss Poldark is the first novel in a huge family saga set in Cornwall in the 1780s, focusing on Ross Poldark and his wife Demelza. Winston Graham (whom I confess I’d never heard of until I started to watch the new BBC series) was the author of more than 40 novels, and the Poldark series is now in its third recreation as television drama. The central character, Ross, in the new BBC production, has been hailed as sexier than Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. I don’t disagree. But as for the book, he doesn’t stand out (no pun intended) as much as Demelza, the abused waif whom he rescues from a beating by her drunken father, takes on as a kitchen maid, and marries when she is of age. Love comes slowly for Ross; he is seduced by her, who adores and hero worships him, and he gradually realises that she is rough cut diamond, a feisty, loyal, loving, happy, winsome girl of superior intelligence and wit, who quickly blooms into a wild English rose, without losing any of her natural honesty and down-to-earthness. It is a true Pygmalion story, though Ross is not really the architect of her transformation. She transforms herself through her desire to be a worthy wife and partner for him, to be able to hold her own among the aristocracy of the community, and yet does not lose touch with her origins, a child of the earth. She makes mistakes, not least when she becomes a conspirator of the heart with Ross’s cousin Verity, a plain, hard-working young woman whom no-one expects to marry, but who falls in love with a sea captain with a dark past. Demelza’s part in bringing the lovers together splits the family apart and is the catalyst for Ross’s estrangement from Verity’s brother Francis, who happens to have married Ross’s first love, Elizabeth, while Ross was away fighting in the American Civil War. Around the ups and downs, jealousies and betrayals, loves and losses of the Poldark family is woven another story, that of the tin mines in Cornwall. It is hard times; many of the mines are abandoned, the price of tin has fallen, and Ross’s estate is derelict. Against all odds, he decides to resurrect one of the family mines. The trials and obstacles of this enterprise occupy a large part of the book, and I confess I found this story less interesting than the central romance. Ross has less affinity with his own class than with the working people, and of course his marriage puts him even more offside with his own relations and their circle. He shares what he has with his workers and their families, and protects them as much as he can from the bad treatment and the poverty they are subject to. So in many ways this book is in the genre of great 19th century novelists like Dickens, Zola and Balzac, who wrote realistic novels portraying individual lives framed by the struggle of the classes and the inhumanities and injustices of society. For me, the writing does not have the force and calibre of these novelists, it is more middle of the road, but nevertheless very readable, and the characters are vivid and convincing. I have ordered the next book in the Poldark series, titled Demelza, from the library.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is translated from Italian by Anna Goldstein (published in English in 2011). urlThis is a book I find hard to describe, and although it’s only about three weeks ago that I read it, I’m pushed to summarise the plot. The first and most interesting thing about this book is that the author has become a sensation on the international literary scene, because of the quality of the writing, but even more because the author has kept her anonymity. Beyond that she grew up in Naples, has lived for periods outside Naples, has a Classics degree, teaches and is a mother, she is unknown. My Brilliant Friend is the first of a trilogy. The narrator, Elena, recalls her Neapolitan childhood and school days in the 1950s; a time and place of ignorance, violence, gangs, cruelty and gossip. Elena admires and tries to emulate Lila, whom she meets in first grade. Lila is described as “that terrible, dazzling girl”, and everyone is afraid of her. Gradually they become friends; Elena does not lose her honesty and innate gentleness, and Lila does not modulate her fierce and uncompromising nature, but they are loyal to each other in a fashion, while Elena is secretly devoted to Lila, even obsessed with her. Lila is the more gifted of the two, but her family does not support her going on to high school, and she gives in and takes on the role of family helpmeet and worker in her father’s shoemaking business. She blossoms into a very beautiful young woman, and marries a local boy from a wealthy family at 16. Elena, on the other hand, is allowed to go on to high school with a scholarship, and what she misses in brilliance, she makes up for in discipline, and becomes a star pupil. That’s a rough outline of a complex book which is close to stream of consciousness in the way it is told, in that one scene melts into another and there is much reflection on the friendship and on her attractions to a particular boy who is at least as bright as she is and more radical in his thinking. But really, it is Lila she loves most, and Lila, like the radical boy, is beyond her reach. 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. If you want to know more about Ferrante’s work, there is a comprehensive review in the New York Times.

Last but far from least is Jane Austen’s Persuasion. persuasion This book needs no introduction; it is perhaps the most read of Austen’s novels after Pride and Prejudice, and has been made into films. It was Austen’s last novel, completed a year before she died at the age of 41. Everyone knows that Austen remained a spinster, and it is tempting to see this story as wish fulfilment. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is the youngest of three daughters, and though possessed of superior ‘elegance of mind and sweetness of character’ was ‘nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way— she was only Anne.’  The intervention of a family friend prevents her from marrying the man she falls in love with at the age of 19, and for eight years she lives a lonely life, longing for what she has lost, and being a dutiful daughter and sister. When the novel starts, she is 27, a shadow of her former bloom and beauty. I’m sure most of you know the plot, so I won’t summarise it. I just want to say that for me, Anne is one of Austen’s strongest and most convincing heroines. When Anne’s former lover, Captain Wentworth, returns from years at sea with a fortune, he finds her much changed, and appears to be playing the field, looking for a likely wife. After many twists and turns, he overhears her talking to another captain, a mutual friend, about love and marriage. Re-reading this climactic scene, I realised that she is my favourite Austin heroine. She utters words which mark her for me as a proto-feminist. Trapped as she is in a hierarchical world where title and connections and money mean more than love and loyalty and kindness, she holds her own in a vigorous argument with Captain Harville ( a friend of Wentworth’s, who is sitting at a nearby table, ostensibly writing a letter). In a conversation about a mutual friend, a man who is fairly recently widowed and has fallen in love again, Anne maintains that women are more constant than men.

Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. … Men have had every advantage over us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything. … All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.

There is a rich context to this defence of woman’s constancy, both in past events and in the present scene. Captain Wentworth, the eavesdropper, the silent witness, finally acknowledges to himself that he has not stopped loving Anne, and that she is superior to any other woman he knows; that she is the very model of constancy and character that he seeks. The rest unfolds as it always done in Austen’s novels, with the marriage summarised in the final chapter; as she says, ‘Who can be in doubt of what followed?’


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Finch Memoir Prize 2015

images Schools of Fish by Alan Sampson, published by Finch publishing, May 2015. One never knows what to expect with book awards. I have been surprised and disappointed by many, and occasionally have felt the award was a worthy one. This time, I confess, I didn’t have high expectations. But I declare a bias: I entered for the Finch memoir prize for 2015 and was not successful.

Finch Publishing began their memoir prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2010; it is a worthwhile award of $10,000 and publication. I don’t know how many entrants there were for 2015; as far as I’m aware they don’t disclose this. But I’m pleased to say that I think Schools of Fish is a worthy winner. One thing that puzzles me though is that the author’s name on the book and in the press release is Alan Sampson, yet his eldest son Ben is acknowledged: “without him this story could not have been told”; and when I googled for reviews, I found this website in Ben Sampson’s name which foregrounds his role in the writing, and implies that they were equal co-authors. If so, why doesn’t Ben’s name appear on the cover of the book and in Finch’s publicity for the book, which gives all the credit to Alan. Why is Ben not a co-winner?

Moving on. It is not a literary memoir, but it is well written, and it carries you along on the momentum of a man’s journey as a Queensland  high school principal and a father. We see a gradual and painful evolution from his model of discipline and success, to a much more tolerant, open-ended, intuitive approach to life and work. The catalyst of his change is his youngest son, Greg, who is diagnosed with dyslexia and becomes something of a rebel and a misfit. Alan,  the narrator, is meanwhile bent on reforming a school with a bad reputation, while his marriage falls apart. When Greg finishes primary school he is enrolled at his father’s school, which is the source of some embarrassing situations, where Alan has to discipline his son, and is forced to recognise that his son’s disability is turning him into a misfit and a potential ‘failure’.

Greg has a saving grace, that he is an excellent surfer, and the ocean is his escape and his school of life. The transformation in their relationship begins when Alan decides to find out what is the source of Greg’s inner confidence and ability to face his fears. Alan decides to go surfing. At first, he panics when he finds that the surf is a place where he can’t use all his knowledge and power. He is awed by the power of the surf and his sons’ (Ben’s and Greg’s) power and mastery. Then Greg is overpowered by a barrel wave, thrown metres onto a sandbank, and carried unconscious to Emergency. He is in a body brace at Lismore Hospital for days, waiting for a definitive diagnosis. Alan sits with him, and on the second night, begins to cry. Greg surfaces and begins to murmur. In the most beautiful moments of the story, he recites a poem by Judith Wright, The Surfer:

Last leaf of gold vanishes from the sea-curve. Take the big roller’s shoulder, speed and swerve: Come to the long beach home like a gull diving.

And then more poetry, more poets. Alan is amazed: “He’d hated books ever since the day he realised he couldn’t read them.” Another one he recites is Five Bells by Kenneth Slessor.

As Greg floated back into unconsciousness I followed him quietly, imagining my boys teaching and reciting poems together in the surf all those times, or in their car, or tucked into sand dunes when there were no waves. Teaching with no teachers, learning with no lesson.

What more can you say? This is the climax of the story for me. Ben recovers, after months of rehabilitation, and returns to surfing. Meantime, Alan questions his teaching and leadership model and finds a better one:

The real goal for all students was to be able to think beyond their fears, to think for themselves and to know they didn’t have to be intellectually excellent to live an excellent life.

Greg is the key to his realisation. Alan’s heart and mind have been opened, and he translates his new ethic of teaching and learning into the administration of his school, which, in 2009, wins an Outstanding award for School Culture. Academic excellence follows but is not the goal. Outside the classroom, Alan continues surfing with Greg, and in Bali, surfs the impossible wave.

‘Inspiring’ is an overused word, but this book truly deserves it.


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Books I wish I hadn’t read: Perfume by Patrick Suskind

perfume   Some of my friends raved about this book in the late 80s and 90s. When I scanned through the reviews of it on Goodreads, I found that most of them also rave about it. It’s a book I wish I hadn’t read. It won’t be added to my store of literary treasures. It is a story of an abominable man, born without a smell of his own and gifted with a super-human sense of smell. The first quality makes him less than human, ignored, abandoned as a baby, growing up by his own cunning and will to survive, without loving or being loved. The second quality makes him more than human, for he is gifted with the ability, honed over many years, to capture and recreate the essences of things and people. He uses this ability to disguise himself when convenient, and to pursue his lust for capturing essential fragrances, especially of young, beautiful, virginal girls. This ability pits him against the mass of humanity, in a time (the eighteenth century) when stenches reign the cities, and underlying them all is the stench of death and decay. This is an entropic world, where all things and all beings lust for life but the inevitable end for all is death and decay. The anti-hero, Grenouille, achieves his greatest desire, to be worshipped for his self-creation as a divinely perfumed being. This after a chain of murders of beautiful virgins. His triumph is hollow, because he cannot enjoy his transformation. His disgust for humankind means that he lacks the ability to love, and can only hate those who believe they love him.

The writer asks a lot of his readers. We are subjected to page after page of detailed descriptions, of smells, of the process of extracting smells, of Grenouille’s thought processes and actions in perpetrating his fantasies of transformation. What is left, when he is finally destroyed by a group orgy of cannibalism (no apology for spoiler here), is the grotesque proposition that the act of dismemberment and consumption is an act of Love. In effect, any moral that this story carries is destroyed by this ending. Even Love is corrupted by desire for possession and incorporation of what is essentially (no pun intended) a false, corrupt, evil beauty.

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romance and realism: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing. One of my all time favourites is North and South, and the BBC dramatisation of it is superb. A great favourite when I was much younger is Cranford; I still return to this one, a lovely, gentle satire of a village inhabited mostly by women, nearly all single — “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears…”. To find out why, read the book, an early feminist novel.

But to the book in hand.


The only reason I haven’t given it five stars is that it is unfinished, and the last chapter, written by Frederick Greenwood, her editor, sketches the ending according to what he knew of her intentions. In the dramatisation, an alternative ending is given, more satisfying, perhaps more wish fulfilling, a neat tying of the knot between the heroine and her lover, but not what the author intended. So I ended the book with an unfinished feeling, wishing that Gaskell had lived  to put the last touches to this vivid tale of middle class life in a Midlands town, ‘”an everyday story”, as the subtitle puts it. Everyday for those times, when a lady didn’t work, and her status was determined by her husband’s or father’s profession or rank, her breeding, her manners, her looks, and how many servants did the every day chores and oiled the wheels of everyday life.

For plot, the main theme is the ambiguous position of a middle aged doctor, a widow, bringing up his daughter Molly; he has managed successfully so far, and both father and daughter are very happy in their menage a deux, but when Molly enters her teens, and the young apprentice doctor in his household develops a crush on her, Mr Gibson becomes aware that he needs a wife, to bring his daughter to adulthood in a respectable way and protect her from the seductive arts of young men. For Molly is beautiful, with curly dark hair, grey eyes, and a charming gravity, intelligence and truthfulness, free of coquettish vanity. So Mr Gibson, by a circuitous route, chooses a widow, Hyacinth, charming, pretty, vivacious, and shallow. She is not an evil stepmother, but she is narcissistic, superficial and pretentious, and Mr Gibson soon realises that he has made a poor choice. But appearances are kept up. Molly, equally clear-sighted as her father, sees through her stepmother too, and longs for the days when it was just the two of them, in perfect sympathy, when her father’s favourite lunch of bread and cheese on a working day wasn’t forbidden as vulgar, when he could wear his slippers in the drawing room every evening he stayed quietly at home, when she could ride her pony along the lanes with him… when life was simple and homely and not complicated by keeping up appearances. The old, instinctive, father-daughter bond, later theorised by Freud as innately incestuous, is disrupted by the father’s marriage, and has to become covert and constrained, much to Molly’s grief. Freud would have had a party with this plot.

To complicate things and triangulate them even further, Hyacinth has a daughter the same age as Molly, whom she has kept at arm’s length, at boarding school, of whom she is both proud and jealous, and who comes to live in the new blended family. Cynthia is more beautiful than Molly, but less grounded in her character; her difficult childhood and lack of emotional support from her mother has left her with a fatal inability to feel deeply for anyone. Except Molly, whom she comes to love, and Mr Gibson, whom she says she likes and admires more than any man she has known. If only, it is implied, she had had such a childhood as Molly has had, she would be worthy of her beauty. But she is a flirt and a jilt, attracts the devotion of Roger, the man that Molly has secretly fallen in love with, while she is still entangled in a relationship formed when she was only 16. Molly discovers her secret and rescues her from what has become a trap, and Cynthia ends up breaking off the engagement to Roger and marrying a more ‘suitable’ man, one with wealth, ambition and pzazz.

And more. I always struggle to summarise a plot. There are many minor characters, all vividly drawn, and in the end (without an ending) Molly seems likely to get what she deserves, marriage to the man who is her moral, mental and emotional match. So it’s a traditional romantic plot. What makes it delightful and profound is the delicate irony with which characters are sketched; all are rounded, realised in vivid detail, even the minor ones, and the main characters are complex and fallible.

It is a perfect harmony of romance and realism. The gentle mastery of dialogue never fails. So, for example, when the new bride, Hyacinth, returns from her honeymoon with Mr Gibson, Molly leads her upstairs to the newly-furnished bedroom, and Hyacinth says:

“Now, my love, we can embrace each other in peace. Oh dear, how tired I am!” — after the embrace had been accomplished). ” My spirits are easily affected with fatigue; but your dear papa has been kindness itself. Dear! What an old-fashioned bed! And what a — but it doesn’t signify. By-and-by we’ll renovate the house — won’t we, my dear? And you’ll be my little maid tonight, and help me to arrange a few things, for I’m just worn out with the day’s journey.”

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Filed under romance and realism