It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book, Lessons (2022) without giving away too much of the plot; no spoilers. I’ll try.
The story is about Roland Baines and with a title of Lessons, it’s appropriate that it begins with a lesson: a piano lesson, but this one has lifelong repercussions.
The story isn’t linear but it progresses like a complex cable-knit from that piano lesson when he was 14 years old right into his early 70s.
The writing is dense and not conducive to the one and a half page read in bed before you go to sleep. This book demands your time and attention. It’s also a bit of a history lesson as world events impinge on Roland’s life from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, through the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989 to the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic. Roland was born in 1948, a real Baby Boomer, but only a few years before me; there’s little bits of my history that match Roland’s and those little bits are mainly reflected in his mistakes. It’s Roland’s mistakes – or, if you like, the lessons he didn’t learn – that lay down the path of Roland’s life.
For readers of Roland’s age you too will, I predict, see little bits of your own history as we all can’t be immune to the world and what goes on in it.
Roland’s life, in its teenage beginnings, has enormous potential as a pianist, a tennis player, and as a writer. What he does with that potential and how those choices affect him and those around him make up the spine of the story.
There is, of course, the piano teacher, Miriam, then his first wife Alissa and her German family, his only child, Lawrence, his second wife, Daphne, and an unknown brother, Robert, are all dragged along by the history around them; some do well, others do not.
After his trite little book, Nutshell (2016), which I thought was way below par, so much so that I didn’t bother with his next one, Machines Like Me (2019) Lessons is a return to the classic standard of his Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), and The Children Act (2014). It’s not a return to his early work which was full of darkness and the macabre, but it’s a mature and serious work that delves into what it really takes for a person to fulfil their dreams and how easy it is for those dreams to turn to smoke.
The complexities if its timeline annoyed me a little in the first third, but there is a rhythm there you need to tap into but once you do the book rollicks along to its conclusion; well it did for this reader, anyway. I loved it! (But, please, make time for it and attend to it wholeheartedly)
Lessons is his most autobiographical work, about a quarter he says, and you can hear him talking about the book and his writing life here, in a short but fascinating video from the CBS Sunday Morning program.
You can purchase the book in various formats here.
If you find Virginia Woolf fascinating, as I do (Don’t be Afraid of Virginia Woolf), it’s almost impossible not to find Leonard Woolf fascinating too. That is what drew me to Sophie Cunningham’s book This Devastating Fever (2022). She wanted to tell the story of Leonard Woolf and she’s been trying to tell his story for 15 years. Then along came Covid19 and the parallels between the Woolf’s trying to be writers during a pandemic (The Spanish Flu of 1918), and Cunningham’s own troubles writing during a pandemic were too good to resist.
This Devastating Fever has two narratives: then, the story of the Woolfs, of course, and now, the story of Alice, a writer writing the Woolf story; both stories deal with similar themes. The pandemic, mental illness, and writing. It’s a novel structure and a very interesting and effective one. Alice while globetrotting for research, and then in lockdown, sends excerpts of her Woolf novel, also called This Devastating Fever, to her Australian agent, Sarah, who keeps urging Alice to include more sex, and given the group of people the Woolfs were part of, The Bloomsbury Set, including more sex wouldn’t’ve been difficult. Bed-hopping and fence-jumping were rife.
However, sex concerning Virginia Woolf was problematic. It’s entirely possible that the Woolf’s marriage was never consummated, yet their relationship was loving, strong, and long-lasting – her suicide note is proof of that! Virginia found sexual release with women, and – possibly – Leonard did too.
Cunningham’s metafiction story of Alice is very modern, but Virginia’s writing, in her own era, was also very modern. Virginia’s mental health, always tenuous, is explored against Alice’s attention to the woman that once cared for her but is now demented and in care. There are parallels galore.
The most effective and moving parts are when Virginia and Leonard are together. Cunningham’s imagined dialogue is wonderfully evocative, intriguingly revealing, and utterly believable. Fiction at its best.
I only have one complaint. Cunningham has Leonard and Virginia ‘appear’ to Alice in her story and the resulting conversations are wonderful and enlightening. However, she calls them ‘imaginary Leonard’ and ‘ghost Virginia’ as if us readers wouldn’t understand what was going on when Leonard appeared and spoke in a chapter headed 2021. Annoying, but a minor gripe.
I highly recommend this unique novel.
Here is The Wheeler Centre interview with Sophie Cunningham from late 2022.
You can buy the Kindle or paperback editions here.
I’m not sure why, yet, but I don’t have a lot of American writers on my shelf and in my line of interest. However, Elizabeth Strout has been there on my literary horizon ever since I saw the film version of her novel Olive Kitteridge (2008) starring the magnificent Francis McDermott. And I’m not sure how but the sequel, Olive Again (2019) is in my pile of books on my bedside table. Then my sister, an avid reader, praised Strout’s Oh William! (2021) – shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – and a visiting friend left me this one, Lucy by the Sea (2022) when she returned home. I read it.
It’s my first pandemic novel. By that I mean it’s the first novel I’ve read that, to some degree, is about the pandemic. Lucy, and her ex-husband, William, leave New York and set up a home in a small house on the Maine coast. He was worried about her and wanted to get her away from the danger.
It’s written in the first person and it reads like a journal. Lucy shares her inner feelings and expectations, usually unfulfilled, along with what she did, who she met, and what she said. It wasn’t long before I realised that she isn’t a very easy woman. I always admire a writer who can create an unlovely character through a 1st person narrative. (The last time I experienced this was in Tim Winton’s Breath (2008)) However, she is self-reflective and so knows not to voice her dislikes too much. She dislikes most things. But she likes Bob, a near neighbour, but not his wife, Margaret. She certainly dislikes the house William has brought her to, the weather, most of the furniture, the grey light, and the loneliness. Lucy’s life is her family: two daughters, their husbands, one she likes, one she doesn’t, William, of course, her ex, and her late second husband, David, whom she misses dreadfully. William also has an ex-wife – she left him taking their daughter – and a half-sister he’s only just met. Needless to say Lucy’s family world is complicated.
Lucy is also surprisingly unaware of the seriousness of the pandemic, even when friends and New York neighbours die because of it. She feels displaced, uneasy, and wonders when she can return to her New York apartment. Set against this general feeling of displacement is the narrative of the events around her and her family told in very plain, uncluttered, and conversational language.
It’s a soft book, and a handsome volume.
By the end she is slightly more aware and accepting of her situation even though her life has changed dramatically.
Strout has written about these characters before in My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), and Oh William! of course; even Olive Kitteridge makes a small appearance in this one.
I enjoyed it, yes, but the interest is solely due to the character of Lucy: how will she deal with hardship, what will she say to her daughter who is mad at her, and what will she do with William after she’s put her nightie back on?
Yes, this, Boyne’s latest novel, is a sequel, of sorts, to Boyne’s incredibly successful 2006 YP novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – 11 million copies sold world wide – but All the Broken Places (2022) is a novel for adults.
The story follows the adult life of Bruno’s sister, Gretel, post WWII and up to the present day, in her 90s.
Until the devastating climax of Part 1 the tension propelling the reader’s interest, keeping it bubbling away, is almost solely due to the secret Gretel Fernley holds and we readers understand; if you had read this book’s prequel, that is. The narrative begins in Paris 1946, when Gretel is 12, and also in London 2022, where she is in her 90’s. But it’s the Paris story that takes you into her nightmare. There is also tension in the London plot too, again fuelled by Gretel’s secret: her real identity, but I thought when reading it that the payoff would be the book’s climax too: at the end of Part 3. No. I was wrong. The book’s climax was totally unexpected, to this reader, but delivered in the most unsensationalist way: almost as an aside. It’s novelistic decisions like this that set apart great writers from the rest.
Although Gretel’s post war story is basically in three parts: Paris 1946, Sydney 1952, and London 1953, her present story, London 2020, runs along with them, and following her throughout is her past and the guilt she feels because of it. It’s the defining theme of all Gretel’s life decisions and the major theme of the book.
After the fantastical saga, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom (2020) which followed a cast of the same characters over 2000 years, and the almost, slapstick humour of Boyne’s last, The Echo Chamber (2021) – soon to be a TV comedy series, scripted by Boyne – I can happily report that Boyne is back at his narrative best which, for this reader, was his 2017 book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.
Boyne almost always leads you confidently along his narrative path hand in hand, but with … Furies, and now with ... Broken Places he grabs you by the scruff of the neck.
It would be impossible to relay the plot without giving away the book’s major surprises, of which there are three, and which occur solely when Gretel’s past breaks through, or threatens to break through, into the present. Yet towards the end of her life, it is her own incredible decision, not one forced on her, that finally gives her peace, the redemption she so desperately needs, and the home she believes she deserves.
Here you can purchase the book in various formats.
And here you can buy the audiobook for free by signing up to Audible.
I used to have a serious crush on the works of W. Somerset Maugham. I’ve read most of his fiction, novels, and short stories and always find something fresh on re-reading them. I usually don’t mention this past-passion: Maugham is very much now out of fashion. However, a recent conversation with a student about short story writing sparked my interest again and serendipitously I discovered this novel Cakes and Ale (1930) in my local second hand bookshop. I bought it.
Modern short stories tend to be more like anecdotes. Maugham’s stories are very neat, some would say old-fashioned: with a definite beginning, middle, and an end. So, to anyone interested in writing, especially short stories, I would highly recommend reading a lot of W. Somerset Maugham.
In his day Maugham was the most famous, the most successful novelist and playwright. His early success was in the theatre. In 1908 he had four plays running simultaneously on the West End. After writing thirty two plays he abandoned the theatre in 1933 to concentrate solely on writing fiction, many of which have been produced for film and television. His greatest fiction masterpiece, some say, is Of Human Bondage (1915), the film adaptation (1934) – the first of four – featured a then unknown actress called Bette Davis.
Cakes and Ale (1930) with an alternative title, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, is a satire on the literary world of Maugham’s day. The 1st person narrator is a writer and ex-medical student called William Ashenden – a name Maugham had used several times when writing autobiographical flavoured fiction.
The plot swings around a noble writer, Edward Driffield who has reached the lofty accolades of his literary career and is considered the ‘father’ of British literature. However, he came from very humble beginnings which Ashenden can attest to as he knew the Driffields, Edward then an unknown writer, but more importantly he knew the first Mrs Driffield, an ex-barmaid and very forthright woman called Rosie. The story opens with the literary rumblings about who will write Driffield’s biography now that the grand old man of British letters has died. It is Ashenden’s recollections of his student days when he knew the Driffields that provide the background and understandings of the great man’s past, and especially the skeleton in his cupboard: Rosie.
The book created a furor when it first appeared as is was believed it was a blatant jab at the recently deceased British writer, Thomas Hardy. “Trampling on Thomas Hardy’s Grave” and “Hitting below the Shroud” were only two of the vindictive reviews that appeared at the book’s publication. Maugham denied the association, of course. He asserts it began as a short story about a notable writer whose famous works were all written while he was married to his first ‘common’ wife but whose second wife, his secretary, ‘made him into a figure’.
Maugham took his title from a line of Sir Toby Belch to Malvolio in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Cakes and Ale were literary symbols (thank you Aesop, whoever you were) for the good life.
It’s written in the literary style of the day and despite the often self-deprecating remarks from the narrator Ashenden, he (Maugham) comes across as a self-serving sarcastic ponse. Yet, the highlight of Cakes and Ale is the character of Rosie. Maugham was particular good at creating ‘common women’. He gave them self-awareness, honesty, and the ability to undermine the pompous men who usually sought their company.
It’s as entertaining as any of Maugham’s work but doesn’t quite meet the standard of his most famous, his novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and The Razor’s Edge (1944). The curious characteristic of both these novels is that they are both about someone who isn’t there: in the former it’s about a painter (based on Paul Gauguin) who is dead, and the latter is about a young American, Larry Darrell who is always abroad searching for the meaning of life. Their stories are told by those who were left behind.
After I’d finished reading Shuggie Bain, Stuart’s Booker Prize winning novel from 2020, I imagined his second novel might be ‘Shuggie Bain grows up and falls in love.’ That’s exactly what Young Mungo (2022) is like, and what the rather audacious cover photo fortells. There is the same Scottish estate bleakness, an older brother, Hamish, this time one not so accommodating, and, of course, a child-like drug-addled and flirtatious girl-mother who doesn’t want to be one, a mother, that is. The characters are all different but to some degree similar. But, here there is also a sister, Jodie, desperate to get to university and not only away from her childhood and family but also away, far away, from ending up like her mother and the deathknell to any girl in her position is getting pregnant. That would seal her fate, as it did the fate of most girls her age and that of the mother, Mo-Maw – she hates being called Ma.
Writing a similar second novel to an extremely successful first is a sure way to consolidate a writer’s reader base. Hanna Kent did it very successfully with her second novel The Good People (2016) after her debut hit, Burial Rites (2013).
Stuart’s central character, Mungo Hamilton, is a nineteen year old Protestant lad and a victim of his mother’s inexpert, and downright malicious, mothering style. To counter Mungo’s un-masculine behaviour she packs him off with two very unsavoury men to ‘make a man of him’. This narrative thread is juxtaposed with the events that lead up to this ‘camping’ trip: namely his home life with his absent mother and violent brother which sees him attach himself to a young Catholic man, and pigeon fancier, James. This friendship staggers into a clumsy but charming romantic friendship that overwhelms both of them and sets them adrift from their families and society.
Although the camping trip to a Scottish loch is certainly a coming-of-age experience its double-climax is nothing that anyone, including this reader – and the writer, I’m guessing – ever expected. When these two narrative streams finally converge both James and Mungo, both battered and bruised, stare at each other across a busy road and dare to dream about a life together, even though us readers know Mungo’s future is most probably battered beyond salvation. I suspect we may hear more about young Mungo.
Young Mungo has the assured hand of a writer steeped in his Scottish background, and like Shuggie Bain, his handling of the Scottish accent, written phonetically, is the main driving force in painting the characters so vividly. This ‘reading’ of the phonetic dialogue is worth practicing. It doesn’t take long to master it, and it gives so much weight to the characters and the tone of the book. Give it a try.
Yes, like its predecessor, Young Mungo is harrowing at times especially with its depiction of what lengths families will go to keep their own in check. Selfishness is rife; love has nothing to do with it. If such writing upsets you it can’t be denied that your strong reaction to the contents or the characters, be it revulsion or annoyance, is solely due to the strength of the writing. Good writing elicits strong reactions, even negative ones.
Douglas Stuart is going to be a major player in the literary landscape for a very long time.
In this short video Douglas Stuart introduces Young Mungo shortly before it was released.
And here, you can follow Stuart talking about writing in general and his personal take on it. It’s mainly about what made him write in the first place, and therefore is more about Shuggie Bain, but those thoughts and ideas are also relevant to Young Mungo; about truth in fiction and how fiction comes from a very mysterious place.
The moment I heard about the Booker win I downloaded it. The opening pages tickled my excitement and curiosity. It was written in the present tense and in the 2nd person. I had never read anything like this before. Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) uses the 2nd person in its opening pages but it’s difficult to maintain.
The narrator is flippant, ironic, and mostly humorous. He (?) is talking to Almeida who is dead. He’s been murdered. They are in an In Between place which makes the narrator a ghoul too, but they can only stay here for seven moons before Almeida is reincarnated. The narrator and Almeida ‘fly’ around trying to solve the murder? People can’t see these spirits who flit from scene to scene criticising the police and trying to prick Almeida’s memory.
The excitement of the first few pages wanes very quickly. Every character, ghost or human, speaks with the same light-hearted but critical flippancy, always searching for the next one-liner. They all sound the same. There is no character development. There is no hook on which to hang empathy or interest. I didn’t care about anybody.
At about one hundred pages I stopped. I’m filing this one under Booker Judges Seduced by Newness. It can join the 2015 Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Jamaican writer Marlon James.
I have heard several heated discussions about this book. I’m a Tsiolkas fan but my appreciation has waned since his Damascus which was an ambitious work and although there were some evocative sections it was ultimately a disappointment for this reader. In fact I’ve been reading Tsiolkas since The Jesus Man (1999) – good, then Dead Europe (2005) -fantastic, and then, of course, The Slap (2008) – brilliant, then Barracuda (2013) -good, Merciless Gods (2014) – very good, then Damascus (2019) – not so good. I found this one in a swap-library at a modest beachfront hotel in Candidasa, Bali, my island home now for 12 years. So, I picked it up and exchanged it for several copies of The Economist.
All of these matters politics, sexuality, race, history, gender, morality, the future – all of them now bore me.
It’s a novel about a writer going away by himself to write a novel. It’s a mixture of autobiography, memory, criticism, natural history, angst, and confession.
Most writers are glorified and bewildered by the fiction writing process. The difficulty of squeezing in the writing process into one’s life seems a rich seam of inspiration. And it is! But not, I fear, for readers. What Tsiolkas has tried to do is worthy of trying but there’s a reason that it’s not attempted more often. I’m not really interested in how a stylish but comfortable pair of shoes is made; I just want them to be stylish and comfortable.
Although he tells us there are 3 stories he wants to write we only really get to know one: Sweet Thing.
A young couple, Paul and Jemma, who met as porn movie actors, and their son, Neal. An elderly gentleman offers Paul $US150,000 for 3 nights with him. They need the money. There isn’t a moral dilemma here, the tension is the trip back to the USA, and not the encounter with the desotted man but the attempt to reacquaint himself with friends, family, and country; a trip into, and escape from, his personal idea of hell, with undertones of, and references to, Dante’s Inferno, the first part of 14th Century writer’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy.
The marketing blurbs on the covers put me in mind of a writer who isn’t comfortable with his idea, a long held idea, he tells us, and so needs to isolate himself with only the idea for company.
…truth and imagination are enemies.
I don’t believe that: fiction, via our imagination, can help us see the truth. He says he wants to write about beauty. But what does that mean? Beautiful people? Beautiful actions? Beautiful relationships? He loves the idea of writing about beauty but doesn’t articulate how it may be achieved. What is most vivid in this book are the scenes where beauty is nowhere to be seen.
Every artist, very writer, must have an element of the superstitious to them … we have faith in alchemy. Yes.
He gives in to the temptation of writing as therapy, yet doesn’t acknowledge that such self-absorption sidelines the reader. All writers must know that writing is, as he says, via alchemy; writers want that alchemy to be understandable, enjoyable, want it to resonate with the reader, and so edit it to make it more so. I don’t know how a writer can ever ignore the reader.
I am a writer, and I believe in the utility of by accident, its necessity.
There are moments of verbosity that sound forced but can be forgiven since this is not so much a novel as a DIY manual – with examples.
Tsiolkas’s narrative jumps seamlessly, grammatically speaking, from his minute by minute existence at the beach house to the story he’s writing, Sweet Thing, to memories, some long lost, as he paddles around the beach and house while trying to write. The ‘work’ is always present. This may make the reading confusing but it doesn’t. Writers, I’m sure, know this feeling, which causes great annoyance to the people who share their lives: their current project is forever taking the writer away from, and getting in the way of, them and the present.
There are pesky little mistakes that the editors should’ve picked up but didn’t. He describes an eagle circling the ocean and beach then diving into the sea and emerging with a fish in its beak. Is this an attempt at writing about beauty? Eagles are raptors and so grab their prey with their feet as they skim the water. This mistake doesn’t worry me, as it might others, since I no longer assume that the universe of the book I’m reading is my universe. However, it does grate a little. Maybe it was a cormorant or booby; they do dive for their prey; he just thought it was an eagle, or wanted it to be an eagle. And no bird eats on the wing. But, maybe it was the image, ‘of the profound amorality of nature’ he was after: ‘… drops of blood and flesh [that] fall from the fish it has taken; they fall softly as rain …’ The image is what’s important even if the details are wrong. Anyway, I don’t let it undermine the veracity of the narrative. Some would.
There wasn’t a time when I wanted to stop reading, although I did skim the more purple prose of his nature writing and his repetitive description of bodily odours. I’m interested in writers and their writing processes, as some readers are, and would’ve liked more of it. We get the main bits of Sweet Thing but not the continuing, and potentially intriguing, detail. This reinforced my idea that he never quite trusted the idea to stand on its own and so wrote it into a story about the writing of it. It isn’t clear whether the work, Sweet Thing, actually was finished, or written. The end of this book is more about the end of the retreat and getting back to his partner than the end of the novel he was trying to write.
Once I finished reading, I felt like it wasn’t written to be read; it was written to be written. As a reader, I felt a little sidelined, left out.
There’s no doubt Tsiolkas is a writer of talent, authority, and variety. What this reader wants is for him to return to the truth-telling of family. He is SO good at that. It is, after all, a bottomless well.
Here is a longish interview, via the Avid Reader Bookshop, with Tsiolkas about 7½.
The story is simple. The language is simple but with purple patches – “silvery spheres too many to count rotating about each other with an unearthly hum, in neverending space”: simple words describing a cosmic image. This and oft used Spanish words and names together with the present tense and an absence of contractions gives the narrative a strange tone, a mysterious placement. This is heightened by a curious grammatical pairing of pronoun with proper noun: ” …says he, Simón” (but only for this character, no other) hinting at a possible translated text from an old time. Halfway through the book you will discover that although this book you are reading is in English, the story is in Spanish. Only the 10 year-old boy has an English name: David, an orphan, who plays football well because he also dances. He is a strong willed and serious boy.
Unlike most novels there is a lack of detail. Clothes, the weather, the place, and surroundings are minimally described, if at all. This has a further curious effect of making the work sound like a fable.
He is in the care of Simón, also a dancer, and Inès; they try to behave like real parents. David becomes enamored of Dr Julio Fabricante, the proprietor of a local orphanage and football team, who has a liberal free-thinking but anti-book learning attitude to raising children. David is attracted to the idea of orphan-dom and decides to live at the orphanage. Simón can’t stop him and Inès is angry at him for not trying harder. Their relationship, tenuous but stable but only because of the boy, is further strained.
When David’s legs mysteriously stop working the orphanage gives him back to the couple. David is broken. In hospital his condition is mysterious but he gathers attention from other patients, visitors, and staff, including a reformed murderer of David’s early acquaintance working as a janitor. He tells them stories from his head about Don Quixote, the only book he has ever read and it remains the only book he reads. They all gather around his bed listening to him. He is called ‘Young Master’ and he has an old dog who, along with the reformed murderer, are the only ones who understand him.
What does it all mean? There are parallels with the life of Jesus: a boy whose parents are not his parents, a boy of a weak body but a strong mind, a boy who garners followers, a boy who befriends sinners, alianates authorities, and has a life infused by an old text.
Some writers, John Boyne, the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), in particular, have been heavily criticised and even beleaguered and verbally abused for not, according to his abusers, getting his facts straight. His detractors obviously expect a novel to be ‘in’ the same universe as they are. This is an unnecessary assumption. Made-up stories about witches and elves, vampires and blood-drinking, walking talking trees and ents are obviously NOT in the universe of the reader. Why then assume that other made-up stories must be? Just because the world of a novel ‘looks like’ the world of the reader, readers should not assume that it is.
Every made-up story exists in its own unique universe. It is an example of speculative fiction.
Coetzee’s The Death of Jesus (2019) is a made-up story. It’s universe is similar but not the same as ours. Strange things happen and strange ideas are championed for reasons that go to the heart of the work. Readers need to find their own unique meaning of what they read. This is part of the joy of reading fiction. This understanding, which few people understand, is the sole responsibility of the reader. It has nothing to do with the writer. When you read it and discover your own meaning it will be very different to mine. I’m sure.
Its futile wondering what Coetzee meant – it’s very likely, Coetzee being a novelist (a conduit of literary creativity), that he doesn’t know what he meant.
Although the title may give away how the story unfolds, it is not as one would expect. In fact the ‘end’ of the story loses narrative tension, but still the expectation of what you don’t expect serves the same purpose.
Whatever it is, it’s a bloody entertaining and intriguing read.
Recently established at the University of Adelaide is the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice where its namesake is the Patron. It is a research centre devoted to understanding creativity and a cultural hub where leading literary, musical and multimedia scholars and artists can learn from one another and collaborate.
You can hear the man himself pronounce his name here. (John Cortzee – jon kert SEE)
The thing is not to write what no one else could have written, but to write what only you could have written.
When this book came out in 2008 the Australian literary scene lit up! The collection of longish short stories heralded a major new writer of extraordinary scope and skill. He was 27.
The first story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice is as one would expect. The narrator, Nam, a Vietnamese Australian living in the US and studying writing at the Iowa Writers Centre is hosting his father, a Vietnamese war veteran whose relationship with his son has been fractious. It is now better but still not grounded and never easy. References to the other stories in this collection make this first story work like a preface to the book itself. When Nam, then a lawyer, told his father that he was quitting his job in Melbourne to go to Iowa to become a writer his father said ‘The captive buffalo hates the free buffalo.’ He was prone to talk in proverbs.
His description of peak-hour traffic: it’s rinse of noise. His smile was as stiff as his suit. … their amusement, coughing it around their circle like a wet scrap.
The second story, Cartagena, is set in Colombia and is very unexpected. It knocks your socks off! The syntax is simple, no contractions, the occasional use of favela Spanish, restricted punctuation – no quotation marks, and a recurring misuse of a verb: ‘Luis, who had the same age,” makes it sound like a mistranslation. All these grammar tricks conspire to give veracity to this 1st person narrative. It feels authentic, belying the fact that the author is not a young Colombian thug, but a young Vietnamese Australian. The narrator is Juan Pablo, fourteen and a half years old, a sicario – hitman – who has been obedient, a faithful soldado and loyal to his agent, El Padre, except recently. He did not make his last hit. He said he could not find him. He lied to his agent whom he has never met. The hit is his best friend, Hernando. Juan Pablo is in deadly trouble. He knows this because he has been summoned. Everyone knows this can only mean one thing. No spoilers here but, well, a devastating climax. It was this story that was scorched in my brain from my first reading over a decade ago.
And then comes Meeting Elise. A completely different tone, more traditional grammar and another 1st person narrative: a middle aged artist whom women leave and who’s having trouble with hemorrhoids and colon polyps. He fucks things up by talking too much, mostly the truth, he reckons – too much verbiage, too much booze. He’s getting ready to meet his long lost 18 year old daughter, a musician, whom he hasn’t seen for 17 years. He’s exhilarated but scared, sorry but expectant. It all sounds like the work of a different writer.
Halflead High This story is a 3rd person coming of age; a coastal high school student full of raging hormones, adult disappointments, and life getting in the way; an ill mother, high school jealousies, loves, lusts, and betrayals. It’s touching, recognisable, and insightful.
His mother was dying and seemed torn between ignoring it and rushing towards it.
It’s lines like this, and those above, that for me cements a writer’s worth. Something clicks in the reader – it did with me – simply stated but describes an unrecognised truth made manifest in a line like that.
Story No. 5 is a 1st person narrative: this time a young Japanese girl in an evacuation centre sleeping “four mats away from the radio”. She and all the other children scrub the wooden floors of the temple till they shine and press their hands together for the glorious Imperial Forces who fought the reviled enemy China and now the cowardly enemy, America. Soybean rice with mugwort grass is better than pounded rice cakes. Do without until victory. Honorable death before surrender. It’s the last days of the war. The text is dense, no delineated dialogue, just a stream of consciousness from a little girl. Short, plain sentences. Present tense. Subjects jump around: scrubbing floors, running during exercise, Big Sister, Mother covered in dust, rice soup, Imperial heros, the wind, the loud warnings, Big Brother who has gone to Confidential Place, sore knees, the sounds of B24s, or is that a B27? cicadas, hunger. The rabbity mind of a little girl, named Little Turnip. The title, Hiroshima, is ominous.
The 6th story is the least successful; Tehran Calling follows a young American woman travelling to Iran to see her old university friend only to be caught up in youth unrest, Iranian hypocrisy, and self-deception. However, the syntax and form is different from each of the other stories. It’s as if Le is searching for his voice, his tone, his style, the work he feels most comfortable with. But astoundingly each story has a style that is different but authentic, authorial, with weight and verisimilitude.
Style is everything. Style is eye, window, and view. And, of course, when it serves its purpose, style is beside the point, is rightly subsumed by subjectivity and subject. Perhaps the handiest definition of literature is language where style and subject are inseparable. (2021) He certainly proves it.
‘Why do you write about Colombians, Japanese, and Iranian girls? What about us!” says his father in the first story. So he does.
The last and title story, The Boat; I was forced to schedule daytime reading time for it. Reading it before sleep was impossible. The opening scene of the view from the crowded bilges of an unstable refugee boat on the very high seas is terrifying. In appalling, almost unimaginable conditions where bodily functions are just part of the boat’s geography. Drinking water is rare and hallowed; human relationships based on nothing but instincts. A little boy obsessed with counting heads after every splash overboard. A little boy, like an old man squeezed within a skeletal frame.
It was a face dead of surprise.
The range, skill, and boldness of these stories is breathtaking. Seventeen years ago a novel was eagerly anticipated as if short stories weren’t somehow good enough. How stupid is that? If Le writes nothing ever again what he has written here will cement his name in Australian literature as a voice to be honoured. Along with Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, every Aussie home needs this book on their shelf.
Here you can watch Nam Le reading a short excerpt from the 1st story.
And here you can hear Nam le talk intimately about writing and why he does it.