Category Archives: award-winning fiction

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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This book has received accolades, and been awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Prime Minister’s literary award for fiction. Mostly, it has had rave reviews.

I am a dissenter. I had very mixed feelings as I read it. I won’t attempt to summarise the plot; many others have done that.

I think the middle part of the book is the great story. Flanagan tells the gruelling story of the Australian men who slaved to build the Thai-Burma railway during the Second World War — how they were driven to death, forced to work in impossible conditions, with only the most rudimentary tools, almost no food or clothing, beaten, treated as less than human. The focus is on individual men, and their commander, Dorrigo Evans, who is a surgeon and struggles to keep them alive, to care for them when they are ill and dying. He loves them, he sacrifices himself for them, he pleads with the Japanese commander and officers to spare them from brutal floggings and forced marches and work on ‘the Line’  when they are close to death; and yet he fails in his love, because every day more and more of them die.

He is a paradoxical man, for though he is a hero, selfless in his dedication, he does not believe in his own goodness. He becomes an actor in his own life, compelled to go on trying to save his men.

Everything about their procession felt to the doctor an immense charade, with his the cruellest character: the man who proffered hope when there was none, in this hospital that was no hospital but a leaking shelter made up of rags hung over bamboo, the beds that were no beds but vermin-infested bamboo slats, the floor that was filth, and him the doctor with almost none of the necessities a doctor needed to cure his patients. He had a greasy red bandana, a cap on an angle and a dubious authority with which to heal.

The characterisation of Dorrigo and his men is unflinching, showing them in all their motley humanity, unlikely heroes. The interpretation of their heroism is interesting and challenging. For they act, it is insisted, not out of essential goodness or even compassion, but out of a collective instinct to survive. This is more so, I think, for the men than for Dorrigo, because we are allowed a space where we can believe in Dorrigo’s love and self-sacrifice, even though he does not believe in it himself.

It had been a day to die, not because it was a special day but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die now, and the only question that pressed on them, as to who might be next, had been answered. And the feeling of gratitude that it had been someone else gnawed on their guts, along with the hunger and the fear and the loneliness, until the question returned, refreshed, renewed, undeniable. And they only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us.

Yet, I want to insist that there is love, compassion, in their small acts of kindness and tenderness. Sometimes, in this story, I feel there is too much analysis, too much insistence on the authorial point of view, which comes through in the interpretation of the men’s actions.

A bigger question for me hangs over the stories around the central war story. Dorrigo is again the main character, deeply flawed by his own lack of self belief. This is externalised in his marriage, which is hollow, because he has fallen in love with Amy, who is married to his uncle. He loses her but never gets over her, nor she him. Where I lose belief in the narrative is  the insistent characterisation of Dorrigo as a man who acts his own life. We are told he has become a national hero, famed for his war service and for his subsequent career as a surgeon. He is a philanderer, loved not only by his wife but by the women he seduces, yet none of it has meaning for him, not even his children. I find myself wondering, if indeed he is so lacking in self-belief, how he manages to sustain the life that he does.

Another aspect of the story that disturbs me is the portrayal of the Japanese officers. We are given their points of view, both during the building of the Line, and in the lives of some of them after the war. They tell us that they act as they do because of the equation that the Emperor is a god who must be obeyed at all costs, and that the Allied prisoners are less than human and deserve to suffer and die because they acted ignobly by surrendering rather than taking their own lives. There are gestures towards redemption in the post-war lives of a couple of them, but this is left unresolved. I question Flanagan’s licence to enter the consciousness of these Others and portray their motivation. How can he, or any of us, know how it was to be them, within that culture, at that time? How can we speak for them? I wonder what a Japanese reviewer would say of this book.

There are other things about the book I am disturbed or irritated by, but that’s enough for now! Many readers may disagree with me.

 

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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 becomes 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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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, and 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 gave him refuge while his mother worked incognito and his father was 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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Revisiting classics: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

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I confess I haven’t read this book till a couple of weeks ago, even though it was published in 1989 and awarded the Booker prize, and made into a highly acclaimed Merchant Ivory film in 1993 (which I did see).

When I started to read it, I wondered if I would persist. I was bored and felt stifled by the monologue of Steven the butler, the narrowness of his outlook, the snobbery of his perception of self and the wealthy and privileged men he worked for, his emotional repression and self-denial, the self-importance of his definition of himself through his position, his aspiration to be “a great butler”, undermined by his fear that he is not one; though one wonders if this is false modesty. The one focal point of tension and irony is this very narrowness and fragility of his identity, as he worries about the series of small errors he has made in the last few months, ”all without exception quite trivial in themselves,” and his inability to rise to the banter that his current American employer, Mr Farraday, tries to engage him in. Not only is he lacking in emotional intelligence and empathy, he has no sense of humour. It’s not just a clash of cultures — the English class system with the American brash, practical outlook — it’s Stevens’ lifelong training in self-abnegation and reverence for tradition and “the professional standards” of his position as a butler in a “great house”.

He embarks on an “expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination for some days”, suggested to him by Mr Farraday who is returning to America for a few weeks. Stevens’  purpose is to visit Miss Kenton, who had served as housekeeper in grander days when Lord Darlington was the owner, and who has recently written to him hinting that her marriage is over, and that she is considering returning to the Great House. His ostensible plan is to invite Miss Kenton to return to the much reduced household and help run it. As his trip unfolds, and he ruminates on the past, on his previous master, Lord Darlington’s ambiguous dealings with the Nazi movement prior to World War II, and his own relationship with his father and with Miss Kenton, it becomes clear that this is a voyage of the heart. Clear to the reader, but not to Stevens.

There are a few moments of truth for him, when he is forced to acknowledge his heartbreak on discovering that after all, Miss Kenton has decided to stay in her marriage.

… these implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed — why should I not admit it? — at that moment, my heart was breaking.

But of course, he does not tell her this. Instead, he turns to her with a smile and agrees one cannot turn back the clock, and utters soothing words as they part and her eyes fill with tears.

Another moment of truth is when he acknowledges to a retired butler he falls into conversation with on his return journey, that Lord Darlington

made his own mistakes. … He chose a certain path, it proved to be a mistaken one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?

Yet, he remains trapped in his own constructed identity as servant:

After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.

Such was his world, and such it remained at the end of the day. Hence his resolve to practice bantering, to please his master. “It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform.” He hopes to be able to pleasantly surprise him on his return.

So little change happens. He gives up his constricted dream of a constrained relationship with his ex-housekeeper, returned to her servant position, and resigns himself to learning new ways of performing to please his master.

Why do I resist this book? It’s not just the stifling class and privilege system and the lack of redemption in the ending. Yes, it has irony, it allows us to see, through clever insertions of conversations with others, how limited and starved Stevens’ worldview is. It’s the severe monotony of the narrative, the lengthy disquisitions in stilted prose on the class system et al., the lack of humour, life, passion.

I have read many reviews on Goodreads which rave about this book. Me, I’d rather read Jane Austen any day, if I want an ironic portrayal of privilege, class, romance, heartbreak and pride — and prejudice.

 

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Revisiting classics: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

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I read this book soon after it was published, and loved it. For years I remembered it as a classic, a quintessential Australian family saga. I think I read it once more a couple of years later. Now, 16 years after it was published, I’ve re-read it. Some books, for me, hold their magic; I’ve read The Lord of the Rings twelve times, and I”m sure I’ll read it again in a couple of years’ time. I enjoyed re-reading Cloudstreet, but my attention faded towards the end, and I began to flick pages over to refresh my memory of what happens. I made myself go back and read it word for word. But yes, I did get bored. I think I’ve outgrown it.

First, let me say I’m not going to refrain from revealing the plot, as the book is widely read, often set as a school text,  and many reviewers have discussed it in detail; there are 787 reviews on Goodreads.

Perhaps I felt a little distanced from it because my own life has changed so much since the first read; I have moved away from Perth in Western Australia, where most of the story is set, and I have moved out of the framework of the bourgeois family, finally. Also, a couple of years ago, I edited a PhD thesis critiquing Winton’s fictional representation of women as sexist, patriarchal, and generally belittling. I am simplifying a complex argument. But when I read this book again, I could see this was true, while recognising that the roles of the main women in the story — Oriel, Rose and Dolly — are true to the period, 1940s to 1960s. I’m still not sure if Winton has a view of women which transcends this stifling domestication and reduction of women; I’d have to read or re-read his other books to decide. Certainly there is not a female character in this book who steps outside the frame. As for the men, they are all, in different ways, lost; only Fish finds himself, and that only by leaving the human world.

The Lamb family come to live in the rambling old haunted house, Cloudstreet, and the rent they pay keeps the Pickles family going. Oriel Lamb is short, boxy woman, a matriarch, who rules her family and is a control freak. But she has a heart of gold, and is the rock of the family. Rose is Dolly Pickles’ daughter; she has her childhood stolen from her by her mother, who uses alcohol and casual sex to escape the frustrations of married life with Sam, a chronic gambler, who loses four fingers on one hand in a boating accident, and gambles away everything he earns. Rose stoically takes on the mothering role in the family, and hates her mother for it; she becomes anorexic in her teens, but comes good (except for a relapse after a miscarriage) when she gets a job and marries Quick, the oldest son of Oriel and Lester Lamb. Marriage, for Rose, though she eventually eschews the little nuclear family house in the suburbs and returns to the family fold in Cloudstreet, is her salvation from a life of despair and loneliness.

Despite having to share amenities in Cloudstreet, the two families are like oil and water; the Pickles are messy and dysfunctional, rattling around and outside the casing of the bourgeois family like dried peas, living separate lives from each other. The Lambs are close-knit, hard-working, with old-fashioned values; though the children are rather a mixed bunch, and the minor children in both families are little more than names; they are not embodied or developed, as are Rose, Quick and Fish. Quick’s childhood is blighted by his younger brother’s near drowning, which he feels responsible for. Fish, who had been the life of the family, the handsome, funny one whom everyone loves, becomes a perpetual child, with the sound of the river in his ears, and the longing to return to it. The book opens with a preview of the penultimate scene, a joint family picnic by the river, narrated in a voice which we come to recognise as that of Fish, not as a child or the simple man he becomes, but as a whole person-to-be, with wisdom and insight, a kind of prevailing spirit about to be freed from the limitations of space and time, worrying for and loving ‘those who go down the close, foetid galleries of space and time without you’. Fish the man is reunited with his lost spirit at the end. He can only ‘truly be a man’ by drowning again. In the last-but-one scene, he is in ecstasy as he enters the water:

And a hesitation, a pause for a few moments, I’m a man for that long, I feel my manhood, I recognize myself whole and human, know my story for just that long, long enough to see how we’ve come, how we’ve all battled in the same corridor that time makes for us, and I”m Fish Lamb for those seconds it takes to die, as long as it takes to drink the river, as long as it took to tell you all this, and then my walls are tipping and I burst into the moon, sun and stars of who I really am. Being Fish Lamb. Perfectly. Always. Everyplace. Me.

This passage whips out the rug from under my critic’s feet. It is a breathtaking concept, that Fish, that perhaps all of us, only become fully human and perfect as we die. It is the opposite argument to that of Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.

There is no hint in Beckett’s world that death brings liberation for the spirit. Time and life are abominable, and death is night. The difference between an instant and a lifetime is only a perspective. Perhaps the perspective of the gravedigger is the truer perspective. Whereas, for Fish, immersion in the river is his escape from time, but the echo of his voice sounds throughout the book, and at the end, we realise that he is the narrator, the voiceover. It wasn’t until I finished the book the first time that I fully realised this, and I had to go back over it to grasp it. The passages in his own voice are fleeting and infrequent, but there is no doubt he is there, behind the scenes, watching it unfold, the game of life, his endgame.

I think, on reflection, I like this aspect of the story best, and it is this that I will carry with me and that may, one day, bring me back to revisit.

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Atonement by Ian McEwen II

I wrote this review on Goodreads this morning, and since it gives a different perspective on the book than my first review does, I’m posting it here. I’ve just started using Goodreads, under my daughter’s persuasion; not sure if I’ll keep it up, but I want to try it. It might encourage me to widen my reading a bit, rather than re-reading classics all the time! Since it assumes knowledge of the story, you might like to read my earlier post, Atonement I first, if you haven’t already.

I read this book when it first hit the news, short-listed for the Booker, in 2001. Then, a few years later, I saw the movie. Both have haunted me ever since, and this is my third reading of the book. I didn’t find it stale, and I found much in it that felt new. It is a complex, many-layered story, and at one level, is meta-fiction, about how and why fiction is written, and about the tension between fiction and reality, truth and imagination. At this level, I find the narrative unsettling, and want to argue with it. Why do we have to know that the whole story is written by the main character, Bryony Tallis, whom we first meet as a discontented, frustrated storyteller who wants to create the real world as she sees it, then as a more realistic, disenchanted young woman, confronting the realities of pain, suffering, loss and damage, as she trains as a nurse during World War II, and finally, as a successful novelist, aged 77 and on the brink of dementia.

In the middle phase, she has an awakening, realising how much damage she did as a young girl, when she insisted on the truth of her biased, ignorant reading of the adult world, and she tries to atone. In the end, the reader sees that writing this novel is her atonement, for in it, she constructs a happy ending for the two characters whose youth and promise and love she has destroyed. Yet, of course, we know that she is a fictional novelist, a persona for Ian McEwan himself, so we are left wondering what, if any, is the final truth of this tale, since Briony has proven herself to be an unreliable narrator.

On another level, that of the story, I have no arguments. I am enchanted by the poetic, understated prose, the way that a simple act opens out; like that of Briony’s elder sister, Cecilia, deciding to fill her vase of freshly picked wildflowers from the the fountain, where she encounters Robbie, son of the family’s cleaning lady, her lover-to-be, at this stage unrevealed to her, for they are both trapped by their childhood habit of relating, and the class barriers. A tussle develops between them over the vase (an heirloom) and a piece of its lip breaks and falls to the bottom of the water.

Cecilia and Robbie froze in the attitude of their struggle. Their eyes met, and what she saw in the bilious melange of green and orange was not shock, or guilt, but a form of challenge, or even triumph.

From here, their challenge to each other unfolds. And as another chapter reveals, Briony witnesses this scene from an upstairs window, and it sows the seed of her jealous misunderstanding and betrayal of them.

I can’t think of another writer so skilled at sustaining the pace of the narrative whilst opening up microcosms of desire, of discontent, of misinterpretation, of suffering and loss, all embodied in sensual detail and the minutiae of gestures, thoughts and actions.

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