The Death of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee

South African born writer, John Maxwell Coetzee, relocated to Adelaide, South Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. He won the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

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)

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here you can watch a short reading by J.M. Coetzee at the University of Adelaide’s Traverses conference in 2014.

The Boat by Nam Le

Vietnamese-Australian writer, Nam Le

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.

You can buy the book is various formats here.

Amongst Women by John McGahern

Irish writer John McGahern (1934 – 2006)

And so continues my love-affair with Irish fiction.

“John McGahern is the Irish novelist everyone should read”, says Colm Tóibín and, considered by some as, arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett. I’m a little bashful to then admit this is the first McGahern work I have read; it won’t be my last.

McGahern’s work has universally been praised. I often think to myself when I hear or read comments about ‘good writing’; so that is good writing, yes, I can see that, but what makes it good?

Recently, I was contacted by a British writer who wanted me to review her recently finished novel. I assume she had come across this very blog where she obtained my contact details. If I agreed to her request she would send me her eBook free of charge. I did; she did. She had created a publishing house in order to publish and promote her work which I thought was very entrepreneurial of her. I began reading with rosy expectation. It began with a Prologue which I read. I read it again. I then wrote to her to apologise but I was not the reader she was searching for and that I would not be reading the rest. I was polite and blamed myself for my lack of understanding and appreciation.

I had just began reading Amongst Women (1991) and hurried back to it.

What makes writing good is an economy of language: clear and apt sentences of time and place; plain words, character-building skills via close writing1 with evocative dialogue; and the necessary understanding of the importance of the narrative voice. Oh, and a deep understanding and interest in human nature. Of course, grammar and syntax are also important but secondarily so.

John McGahern’s Amongst Women is an example of good writing.

Out of the many false starts her life had made she felt they were witnessing this pure beginning that she would seize and make true. No longer, exposed and vulnerable, would she have to chase and harry after happiness.

You could not successfully trim even one word, nor would you need to add another.

Michael Moran, based largely on McGahern’s own father, is an aging Irish farmer from the north west. He has five children: three daughters, Mona, Shiela, and Maggie – and two sons, the estranged eldest, Luke, and the youngest, Michael, still at school. This is a story about a strict father confident in his position as the head of the house and a God-fearing Catholic. The latter underpins and authorises the former. He is a tyrant, grumpy one minute, then playful, then grumpy again. His women both love and fear him. Words of love and understanding are rare. As a widower he marries a woman, Rose, visiting from Scotland. She succumbed to his handsomeness and learns to tolerate his moods. She, in fact, becomes like another daughter. Moran among his four women.

Irish Catholic rural life, and its decline, at a time of great change, women’s emancipation, the authority of the Church, and the practical considerations church-goers have to make to get on with their lives; these are the themes expertly depicted. There is no narrative curve, no climax, just the rhythms of family life; a McGahern specialty. It is his most famous and best loved work.

Amongst Women was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award (1991). It was adapted for television in 1998 and won Best Television Drama at the Irish Film and Television Awards.

All the episodes of the television series can be found on YouTube. Simply search for Amongst Women.

Here is an interview with John McGahern presented by The Howard Poetry and Literary Society of Columbia Maryland, USA in 1993.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

  1. Close writing (or free indirect discourse) describes a special type of third-person narration that slips in and out of characters’ consciousness. In other words, characters’ thoughts, feelings, and words are filtered through the third-person narrator into the narrative style. The opening few lines of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce is a grand and famous example of close writing.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Irish writer Claire Keegan

There is something about Irish fiction that presses buttons in me that I can’t quite name. Whatever their names I’ll keep searching, reading until I discover them. Of course, the all-out Irish fiction writer is James Joyce. I’ve yet to tackle Ulysses (1920) – it’s s t i l l on my to-read pile – but if you haven’t read his masterful and very accessible short story collection, Dubliners (1914) you should. And his autobiography, unusually but intriguingly written in the 3rd person, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is also richly accessible. I have an Irish friend living in Europe who usually visits every year and is due again later in this one who invariably brings me books; I call him my book fairy. An avid reader himself he keeps me stocked in established and new Irish writers for which I am very grateful.

Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, John Boyne, Edna O’Brien, Sebastian Barry, Donal Ryan, Nuala O’Faolain, Anna Burns, Colum McCann, Sally Rooney, Niall Williams, Eimear McBride, and John McGahern (reading him now) and their sideways-up names all look down at me from my bookshelf above.

Claire Keegan is a new one for me. However, this book cover is dotted with praise for another of her works, Foster (2010) and, like this one, is a long short story but given kudos by being lovingly solely published as a handsome hardcover. Thank you Faber & Faber. However, Keegan calls Foster a long short story; she calls Small Things LIke These (2021) a novel: “… something needs to be as long as it needs to be.”

It is also reminiscent of a Joyce story: simple everyday people and their simple everyday lives are explored until something astonishing happens, sometimes only in their minds, and they are changed dramatically. Such is the plot-line of Small Things LIke These.

With the onset of winter – every Irish novel is essentially determined by the weather – Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant, devout Catholic, and father of five daughters is so run off his feet he fears the tyres on his delivery truck will wear to the rim causing his wife Eileen to miss out on her essential domestic repairs. He himself was fatherless but he and his young mother were taken in by a wealthy widow and brought up, if not lovingly, then certainly with care and consideration so whenever he goes to deliver coal to the convent and the laundry and staffed by young husbandless mothers he feels something disquieting but resembling kinship. On one such occasion he is confronted by a wayward young mother, dressed shockingly inadequately given the weather who pleads with him to take her to the river so she can drown herself. So serious and desperate is this mother, a mere child herself, that his automatic refusal disturbs him and rakes his mind well into the next day.

I won’t tell you what he finds himself doing on the next chilly evening – no spoilers here – but in keeping with the tragedy of those notorious Irish nun-run institutions and their work-house laundries his decision will change his and his family’s life forever.

The language is remarkably simple but every now and again contains an oyster of verbal surprise and recognition and you are forced to stop for a moment to contemplate the enormity of the insination of a few deft-chosen words. A characteristic of Irish prose.

“When I was young,” she says, “my mother taught me that if I went to the butcher and was choosing a piece of beef to roast, it should be marbled with fat. And I actually see good prose in the same way – marbled with what doesn’t seem to be necessary.” The Guardian. That ‘marble’ is detail, precise and essential, to give the work verisimilitude: the appearance of being real.

Keegan is already being hailed as one of the best short story writers of the 21st Century.

You can read Claire Keegan’s short story ‘So Late in the Day’ courtesy of The New Yorker and/or listen to her read it here.

Here is an interview with Claire Keegan from 2010 about her writing.

You can purchase the eBook and others by Claire Keegan here.

Preservation by Jock Serong

Australia writer Jock Serong

On the north bank of the North Esk River just before it joins the Tamar in Launceston, North East Tasmania sits the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, the biggest regional art gallery in Australia. Here you can see the world’s oldest bottle of beer salvaged from the wreck of the Sydney Cove which in 1796 floundered on Preservation Island, a small island in the Furneaux Group off the NE coast of Tasmania. This book, published in October 2018, is a novelistic version of the aftermath and the journey by long boat to what is now Ninety Mile Beach in SE Victoria, then on foot for over 600 kilometers by seventeen of the survivors as they attempt to find their way to Sydney, raise the alarm, rescue the remaining crew, and salvage the cargo still on the wreck on the southern end of Preservation Island.

Only three of the survivors, more dead than alive, are rescued: Mr Figge, a tea merchant, but really a charlatan, William Clark, in charge of the cargo, mainly rum, and Clark’s manservant, a Bengali lascar, indentured sailor. A Lieutenant in the service of Governor Hunter, Joshua Grayling, is charged with the task of finding out how their horrific injuries were inflicted and how their fourteen companions died.

The story is told via several voices: the usual novelistic narrator, Mr Figge, William Clark and his journal, and the lascar Srinivas. Once the survivors are in care and recovery back at Sydney the back stories are given time to be revealed. The journey from Calcutta was horrendous; it’s a miracle the Sydney Cove made it so far. The tension of the awful journey, the possibility of death is ever present, is heightened by Mr Figge who only several lines into his story reveals his criminal past and intent. He’s the villain of the piece but only the reader knows this.

The story of the 600 mile trek along the south east coast of New South Wales is full of mystery, danger, betrayal, and friendly and dangerous natives; it’s a lawless land where anti-social deeds mean little when social norms are absent. It’s an adventure story, murder mystery of the early years of the Sydney settlement. However, it doesn’t quite meet expectations. That has something to do with the fact that the story is based on truth and although this is written as fiction, I felt Serong was inhibited a little by his aim of sticking to the historical truth. A moot point.

This is a diverting and well-written yarn. I’ll be searching out other Serong titles: Quota (2014), The Rules of Backyard Cricket (2016), On the Java Ridge (2017) and The Burning Island (2020) which won the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize and features an older Joshua Grayling and his daughter Eliza in another tilt at “epic storytelling.”

You can find the ebook edition here along with other formats and other Serong titles.

Here you can watch various interviews with Jock Serong about his work.

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (2nd reading)

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

I first read and blogged about this book in June 2016. It led me to add Patrick Gale to my list of literary favs. I had read his Rough Music (2000) years before and read it again in 2019. Having now read most, yet not all, of Gale’s twenty one books, these two stand out, for me, as his best.

Recently I watched an interview with him in which he mentions that the devastating opening scene was based on a news item and it was this first scene that he wrote without any idea what was going to happen next … except that the two characters, the perfectly good man, Father Barnaby Johnson, and a young man, Lenny, had to be connected in some, as yet, unforeseen way.

This to me is the essence of what novel writing is: a strong scene that just has to be written and then the writer in the privacy of his own mind, experience, and in a space (room) of one’s own (thank you Virginia Woolf) lets the subconscious out for a walk and writes down what he sees and hears. This is how most novelists work; they’re called pansters (by some): they ride by the seat of their pants. I’ve yet to meet or hear from a writer who plans every detail before writing begins, although I hear that Gustave Flaubert was one.

I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: if you are surprised what you read on the page it’s highly likely that the writer was too.

For any would-be novelist this book is a must read. The idea of letting a strong novelistic event with only two characters and one setting plant the seed of the story of a man’s life spanning half a decade is tantalising. The timeframe of the action is segmented and re-arranged. Gale loves taking time and playing around with it. Hence chapters called “Lenny at 20” are followed by “Dorothy at 24” are followed by “Barnaby at 52” and finally, “Nuala at 52” is followed by the final chapter “Barnaby at 8”. This format makes each chapter not unlike a short story although all of them are preempted with known knowledge which allows the reader to understand and sometimes realise an important reason or revelation that is only known by the reader, and not by any of the characters. You feel privileged.

And that’s how you learn about the connection between Father Barnaby Johnson and young Lenny: it’s not stated, you work it out.

You can find many of Gale’s books, including this one, here.

In the Margins: of the pleasures of reading and writing by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante has always said that once a book is written it has no further need for its writer. She has never been seen in public. Some have even suggested that she could be a man, but the general consensus is that ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym for an unknown female writer.

This slim volume of essays is a very personal attempt to put into words what happens when a writer writes and a reader reads. No mean task. The first three were presented in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, Italy as the 2021 instalment of the Eco Lectures produced by Umberto Eco International Center for Humanities. They were read by the actress Manuela Mandracchia ‘in the guise’ of Elena Ferrante. The fourth and last essay, Dante’s Rib, concluded the conference Dante and Other Classics in April 2021 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. It was read by the scholar Tiziana de Rogatis.

Ferrante vividly reimagines her early school days when she was compelled to write on black lined paper but between two vertical red lines, one positioning the left margin, the other the right. She was diligent to recognise the ease to honour the left margin but recognising “that if your writing didn’t stay between those taut lines you would be punished,” she found the right margin difficult to obey.

I was punished so often that the sense of the boundary became part of me, and when I write by hand I feel the threat of the vertical red line even though I haven’t used paper like that for years.

There is, and always has been, a mysterious element to the creation of fiction. If you as a reader are surprised by what someone does or what someone says in a book, the writer probably was too. Most writers are pantsters: they fly by the seat of their pants. You can begin a scene not knowing where it’s going until you get there.

By mysterious I mean that which makes a writer re-read yesterday’s work and think, ‘Did I write that? Where did that come from?’ When a writer is in the heat of creativity and the keys (or pen) are jumping with energy and excitement, and the little black marks – typos misspellings galore – are coming lickerty-split onto the pale background there isn’t time to think, ‘What did Stephen King say about this situation?’ ‘Passive or active here?’ ‘Maybe I should re-read that Ferrante lecture’ and ‘I’d better ask what’s-his-name? that YouTube guy’. No, there isn’t time. If I stop I’ll lose it. One has to hope-to-god that all that advice, those corrections, mistakes, answers, instructions, and trial & errors have somehow, by osmosis perhaps, made it into my subconscious and are now flowing creatively through my fingertips shoving those little black marks all over that pale background and will coalesce into something worthwhile, giving me a rich and productive resource on which to later manipulate, via several drafts, into a good book. What is that magical force? (muse? imagination? the holy spirit? creative fire?). I don’t think we’ll ever know, because it’s an amorphous product of our imagination that our measly 26 man-made letters – no matter in what order we put them – are just too limited, or too few in number, to give it meaning we can understand.

She quotes Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary (1953):

“And your novel?

“Oh, I put in my hand and rummage in a bran pie*.”

“That’s what’s so wonderful. And it’s all different”

“Yes, I’m 20 people.”

*a bran pie = a tub full of bran in which treats are hidden: a lucky dip.

Ferrante believes there are two kinds of writing, the first compliant, the second impetuous; the first from the ‘outside’, the second from the imaginary ‘inside’ which is by its nature fleeting.

The thought-vision appears as something in motion – it rises and falls – [it’s not unlike watching TV in your mind] and its task is to make itself evident before disappearing.

And fleeting it certainly is. Many times between being hit by an exciting idea and racing to my nearest device with its Note App – it’s gone! And when I try to retrace my thoughts to whatever it was that sparked the thought train in the first place – the caption on a photo, a news article, a phrase – it’s nowhere to be found. Many writers have expressed this mysterious aspect of fiction writing:

Alexander McCall Smith: (writing fiction is) allowing the sub-conscience to escape.

Wole Soyinka: (writing fiction is) a kind of creative reportage.

John Irving: writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean.

D. H. Lawrence: I am doing a novel which I have never grasped …there I am at page 145 and I’ve no notion what’s it about.

Jonathan Safran Foer: when writing non-fiction I always know in the morning what I’m going to work on; when writing fiction I get up in the morning NOT knowing what I’m going to work on.

Virginia Woolf again: writing is camping out in your brain.

There are quotable quotes in almost all of Ferrante’s paragraphs, ideas that will spark your own thought trains. If you are interested in this stuff please read it and re-read it as re-reading is wonderfully necessary; it will delight, amuse, and amaze you. If you’re not, don’t bother.

You can buy the ebook or hard cover edition here.

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

Patrick Gale is a very busy man. He is a cellist, lives in Cornwall and plays in a local string quartet, a keen gardener, artistic director of the North Cornwall Book Festival and a Patron of The Causley Trust. Oh, and, of course, a best selling novelist. Mother’s Boy is his 17th novel released in March 2022. He may be British, but he is also most definitely Cornish. Who else then to novelise the early life of another Cornish hero, the poet Charles Causley.

This is a mother-son story; Gale is particularly good with mothers.

Laura is in service when she meets Charlie Causley, also in service to the local doctor. He is a dashing lad and their romance is brief but strong. All is set for a happy married life together, but WW1 takes him away and returns him a broken man; his life is cut short leaving Laura a single mum with a baby to keep. She takes in laundry, the wine stained alter cloths of St Thomas’s church as well as the other-stained bed linen from the local ‘boarding’ house where the proprietress’s children, Aggie’s brood, all look surprisingly different. A stain is a stain to Laura Causley and each deserves her expert attention.

Charles grows into a concave-chested studious little boy, more at ease with a book than a ball. As a teenager he plays the piano in several dance bands, writes and directs plays, and occasionally takes girls to the pictures and shakes their hands good-night. Laura may be a little disappointed in her son but would never show it. A boy is a boy to Laura Causley and each deserves a mother’s love and protection.

The book is a gentle read; Gale is a master of wry observations while plunging into serious emotional depths. It is as much about Laura Causley as her son, Charles. Gales evocation of a mother’s love is particularly moving:

He had woken already and was straining to look about him. Seeing her approach, he cried out with something like a laugh and reached a hand towards her. She kissed his tiny palm, then scooped him up, furling him in her shawl to hold him against her shoulder where he sucked noisily at her neck. She rocked gently from foot to foot, loving the warm weight of him against her. ‘You,’ she said. ‘Oh, you.’

Another major theme is forbidden sexuality. We first become aware of it when Charles lets his best friend Ginger inveigle them up to Charles’s room where Ginger …

persuaded him to hold him close to demonstrate the steps of the foxtrot and then had taken advantage of the moment to kiss him full on the lips while doing things with his tongue Charles was fairly sure never happened on screen to Claudette Colbert.

But later Ginger takes Charles to the nudist section, men only, of the Plymouth Lido and disappeared for a time only to be seen later exiting a single change room only moments after a big half dressed man had emerged, who then finished dressing, and left. While walking home …

‘You do know,’ Charles wanted to tell him, ‘that what you were doing, or what I suspect you were doing, could have you up in the courts in Bodmin and wreck your prospects, even send you to prison?’ But he said nothing about it because what he longed to do was ask questions instead, and he knew the answers Ginger might give would change the dynamic of their friendship for ever in ways for which he wasn’t ready.

The Second World War sees Charles called up. He was too slight and weak-eyed for active duty so trained as a coder: sending and receiving coded messages usually on board ship but never-ending seasickness had him transferred to land: Gibraltar, and Malta. It was in the Navy that he experienced his sexuality, one relationship slightly abusive, another almost loving. But outside the flimsy protection of a male dominated existence such indulgences could not be contemplated. This is the tragedy that happened to thousands of homosexuals over thousands of years: their man-made social environment precluding their natural natures; in some parts of the world it continues still.

I was a little disappointed that a writer writing about a writer didn’t spend a little more time investigating writing itself, but this is a minor and picky response to an otherwise very enjoyable and evocative read.

Here you can purchase the book in various formats.

Charles Stanley Causley,
(1917 – 2003) British poet, teacher, and writer.

Here you can find a short biography of Causley and a short essay on the poet by fellow poet and author, Kevin Crossley-Holland.

And here you can watch a trailer for the Boatshed Films’ Cornwall Native Poet, Charles Causley which as screened on BBC 4 in 2017 to celebrate the centenary of Causley’s birth.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Hawaiian- American writer, Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara’s third novel To Paradise (2022) is in three parts:

Book 1 is set in New York, in 1893

Book 2 is set in the Hawaiian Islands in 1993

Book 3 is set in Lower Manhattan in 2093

There are many things Jamesian about Book 1, and not just the style and lexicon. The Bingham family lives on Washington Square, New York; and like Henry James’s novella, Washington Square (1880), it is about a rich but ageing heir, a tenacious lover who may or may not be a fortune-hunter, and an intractable and controlling guardian who opposes the match. This may not be so remarkable if it wasn’t for two other potent features. Firstly, the America of Yanagihara’s imagination is very different. What we know as the United States of America is unrecognisable in that it is divided into five separate zones of nations : The American Union (the central north), The Western Union (comprising the nations of Washington, Oregon, and California), The Kingdom of Hawaii, The United Colonies (the south east), The Free States (the north east including New York), and The Republic Of Maine (the far-north east). The south west is still uncharted territories. Secondly, the lovers in James’s story are Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend; those in Yanagihara’s are David Bingham and Edward Bishop. Same-sex relationships are legal and tolerated in The Free States but are quite the opposite in other parts of the continent. Fundamentally and curiously, the love stories, written by James and Yanagihara, are the same.

Book 2 is set in Manhattan and on The Islands – The Kingdom – of Hawaii and concerns members of the royal family who live under greatly reduced circumstances. The main characters share the names of the main characters in Book 1 – as well as in Book 3: David, Edward, and Charles. This technique acts as a linking device throughout the novel linking the three parts but in names only. Yanagihara’s concern here seems to be an acknowledgement of Hawaiian disenfranchisement; with a post-colonial literary edge, giving the displaced and sidelined locals a voice. Young and insecure David works as a para-legal in a law firm in Manhattan where his immediate boss, and lover, is the much older Charles. David is of mixed Hawaiian and American descent. This relationship is told in the third person but from David’s point of view. His lack of confidence, his heritage, and past all conspire to work against him. The second half of Book 2 is a long first-person narrative written to David by his father, medically and emotionally tied to his bed. It contains a yearning tone for the glories of the Hawaii of the past, pre-invasion, although there have been uprisings and counter-revolutions. It’s not clear in this section where the story is going and it is the weakest part of the whole book. However, all is forgiven once you get to Book 3.

This is set in 2093 and divided into 10 parts, opening in 2093 but incorporating the back story from fifty years earlier and following each decade until the threatening and page-turning climax in the last days of the century. It’s impossible to outline the plot here because it’s not only convoluted but I would need to create too many spoilers to do it justice. However, I will simply say it involves the story of Charlie, a pandemic survivor and therefore a greatly changed human being, and her relationship with her grandfather, David. The grandfather-grandchild relationship is an important theme of this book and is explored in many ways.

What is remarkable is that what lies at the core of the novel, and the three books it contains, are deeply personal narratives about love, loss, and empowerment even though the book’s political and social universe that house these individual stories is so totally different to our own; dystopian certainly. Yanagihara has not only imaginatively created an alternative American continent, only keeping to its geographical shape, but also has generated its own inevitable and deeply disheartening future.

This is scary.

It’s scary because given the recent three years of the history of the USA – the one we know: the threat of climate change, the global alteration to our lives due to a pandemic – with the threat of more to come, and the beginnings of the corrosion of American democracy and way of life makes Yanagihara’s novel dangerously prophetic. But all of this information the reader gleans from the asides, dialogue, and explanations of the central very personal narratives.

In Yanagihara’s 2093 pandemics are commonplace. Climate change has happened: cooling suits have been invented and are being improved to allow people to go outside; falling ill puts the individual and their families into permanent isolation (containment centres); building crematoriums is a growth industry. Good nourishment is scarce, food and water are rationed via coupons or can be won through lotteries, tea is powdered, honey is artificial, and all fruit growing on trees is owned by the state. Marriage is mandated since most of the victims of pandemics have been children and those who survive, like Charlie, are sterile. The birthrate has plummeted.

It takes a special kind of cruelty to make a baby now, knowing that the world it’ll inhabit and inherit will be dirty and diseased and unjust and difficult.

All urban areas are surveyed by drones called Flies. It is therefore unwise to show distress, anger, or alarm and if noticed the offenders are plucked from the street by troopers in passing vans. Lives are strictly controlled. Tuscany is no longer inhabitable. Bowing has become the universal form of greeting; touching is therefore avoided.

The people who worked for the State and the people who didn’t were united in their desire to never encounter each other.

Hania Yanagihara started writing this book in 2017 and when the pandemic was raging outside her window the latest pandemic in her invented world was about to override the previous one. She talks about this serendipitous aspect of her book in the video below.

Although there are some flaws, this is a truely remarkable work of creative writing. A must read. I just hope its story stays in the world of her and our imaginations.

Here is a very candid and fascinating interview with Yanagihara primarily about the writing of this novel.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Short Cuts by Raymond Carver

American short story writer, Raymond Carver,
1938 – 1988

One of the enemies of sleep is an overactive brain, which is why there are many pieces of advice that all aspire to getting a light-sleeper ready for sleep: listening to your own breathing, concentrating on a mantra, counting sheep, or reading a book; give the brain one thing to do, and not let it buzz around thirty eight.

I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s latest, and third novel, To Paradise, but I’m reading an ebook edition on my tablet and since modern medical advice is that reading on an electronic device before sleep is not a good idea – it tends to inhibit sleep, not encourage it – I usually have a paper book by my bed for those many minutes of bedtime reading.

Note! I’m not at all advocating choosing a dull read for bed-time reading; not a book to put you to sleep but one to prepare you for sleep.

Short stories are good. Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Short Cuts (1993), has been my recent and decent bedtime read.

The famed American filmmaker, Robert Altman, praised Carver for capturing “the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour … that exist amid the randomness of life’s experiences.” That paints a very general picture of what Carver wrote about; what he mainly wrote about was far more specific.

Carver was born and lived in the American North West and as a young married man – he was married and the father of two while still in his teens – he worked odd jobs, from picking tulips to sweeping floors to managing an apartment building. He knew all about unplanned responsibilities, the threat of unsatisfying work and unemployment and the mysterious chicanery of personal relationships. This is the stuff of Carver’s characters. They are lorry drivers, traveling salesmen, waitresses, the badly educated, disillusioned, the down-and-almost-out, alcoholics, quickly bored, easily distracted, and equally likely to be the betrayed as the betrayer. Their lives are beyond their control and since God has everything to do with it they don’t blame him since he doesn’t seem to care, but anyway, that’s okay because they aren’t that far away from believing they deserve everything they get.

Carver’s stories are usually cautionary tales, highlighting casual moments as the causes of distrust, treachery, and the erosion of tenuous human standards. His characters and situations may be dark and seemingly mundane but they contain a wealth of understanding and insight into the human condition and are told in bold and sparse prose.

Most fiction is told through an omnipotent unnamed third-person narrator who knows everyone’s, and the world’s, past, present and future; they know what everyone is thinking, needing, and planning and tells the reader what they say and do and what they think and want. Carver’s third-person narrators aren’t that powerful. His third person narrators have the same power as everyone else: they just report what is said and done, like his first person narrators. What the characters may be thinking at any one moment is either of no consequence or completely incomprehensible.

His writing is reader-focused: you fill in the gaps, the spaces for psychological insight that each reader brings to such texts which makes these stories so personal and endearing.

Short stories are not the most popular form of fiction but writers who do them well, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W Somerset Maugham, James Joyce, Nam Lee, and Raymond Carver do them very well indeed.

These nine stories and one poem that make up this volume were the inspiration for Robert Altman’s multi-award winning film Short Cuts released in 1993.

Here is a feature-length documentary on Altman, the making of Short Cuts, the movie, and his reverence of the work of Raymond Carver.

You can buy the book in various formats here.