The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

American writer Barbara Kingsolver

On Friday, November 16, 2018 John Chau a 26 year old adventure blogger, beef-jerky marketer, and evangelical missionary walked onto the beach of the isolated North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Sea, east of the Bay of Bengal, southern Asia. He clutched a fish and a copy of the bible. He hollered at a group of Sentinelese natives, ‘My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you.’ The natives strung arrows in their bows and he panicked slightly and threw the fish to them. An arrow pierced his Bible. He frantically paddled in his kayak back to the boat and the fisherman he had paid to bring him to the island. He was fearful but mainly disappointed. ‘They didn’t accept me right away.’ He returned the next day with the fishing boat out of sight thinking it was the boat the natives feared. He kayaked back to the same beach and attempted again to make contact. He was killed and his body has never been recovered. His father believes his son was a victim of an extreme vision of Christianity. John Chau has been called a martyr, an innocent child, a dumb American, and a deluded idiot.

John Chau’s mistakes that led to his death were a result of cultural ignorance, arrogance, hubris, and misguided religious fervour; and these are also behind the motivation of Kingsolver’s character Nathan Price, around which her novel The Poisonwood Bible turns in ever-dangerous circles. He attempts the same contact and Christian conversion of the villagers of Kilanga in what was then, in 1959, the Belgian Congo, but unlike Chau, Price takes along his wife, Oleanna, and their four young daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.

John Chau, according to his family, ‘“loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people”. Nathan Price had a similar belief in God that was so profound that he was embarrassed because God must be watching him even while his four daughters were conceived.

The story contained in the Poisonwood Bible is told only by the Price women. Oleanna opens every section but it is the girls who alternately tell the story of their continuing life-threatening existence; the villagers they befriend, the events that buffet their lives and the poverty they are forced into.

Each daughter has her own distinctive voice; this is Kingsolver’s greatest strength. The language is rich and revealing, defining and luscious. Rachel, the eldest, 15 at the beginning of the novel is self-centered and obsessed with her looks, her prised possession, a mirror. Adah, a twin, has a passion for palindromes, and has a congenital defect: the right side of her body ‘drags’; I was born with half my brain dried up like a prune. However she is witty and intelligent, opinionated but envious of her twin, Leah, who is the most outspoken, a tom-boy who worries about her salvation, and blames herself for Adah’s affliction. Ruth May. the baby, is inquisitive and observant, and sees the world as a baby might: innocently.

Seen through these five facets, the world of the Price women is multi-dimensional, exotic, and full of adversity: the natives, the forest, the river, the wildlife, the ants, the rain, the drought, and their ultimate adversary, the man, husband and father, who governs their bodies and minds. There’s no room for the devil here, not with Nathan Price around.

But it is not all doom and despair, there is childhood play and truthfulness and light-hearted growing up, but their inner lives, told to us by each narrator, tells of an existence separate, but true, from the one they have to present to their father, their supposed protector.

The Poisonwood Bible, her fourth novel published in 1998, is Kingsolver’s best known work. It as an ambitious and most assured novel. Nathan Price is almost a god-figure, rarely present, but his shadow hovers over and dominates the lives and thoughts of his women and their actions. Just like his God, he is tyrannical.

Strange to say, when it came I felt as if I’d been waiting for it my whole married life. Waiting for that axe to fall so I could walk away with no forgiveness in my heart. Maybe the tragedy began on the day of my wedding, then. Or even earlier, when I first laid eyes on Nathan at that tent revival. A chance meeting of strangers, and the end of the world unfolds.

The family seems doomed as long as it stays together, and out of sheer necessity, the women, but not all of them, save their own lives by putting themselves in even more danger.

However, ultimately this is not a book about daughters living with the day-to-day dangers triggered by a deluded dumb-American father; it’s more about how the daughters survived their deluded dumb-American father – and their mother who was powerless to stop him. Children are resilient, they survive, damaged perhaps, but they survive as best they can:

You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back.

The similarities between Kingsolver’s Nathan Price and Lucy Treloar’s Stanton Finch (Salt Creek, 2015) are pronounced: god-bothered men who put their loved-ones at great risk all for the sake of a belief system they learned, unchallenged, from their own parents.

I know many have read this book, but if you haven’t, do.

There are many free videos, short and long, on YouTube featuring Barbara Kingsolver talking about her work. Here is a short piece where she talks about the power of fiction.

You can buy the book, in various formats, here, along with her latest, Unsheltered (2018).

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

John Boyne has in his novelistic career stretched a life over two and a half centuries (A Thief of Time, 2000); channelled Buffalo Bill (The Congress of Rough Riders, 2001); Captain William Bligh (Mutiny of the Bounty, 2008); ghosts in 1860’s Norfolk, (This House is Haunted, 2013); Gore Vidal (A Ladder to the Sky, 2018); set the action in the Winter Palace of the Tsars (The House of Special Purpose, 2009); World War 1, (The Absolutist, 2011, Stay Where You are then Leave, 2013); 1930’s London (Next of Kin, 2006); Nazi Germany (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 2006); Ireland and the Church (The History of Loneliness, 2014, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, 2017); so a novel that stretches a life over two millennia and includes historical people and events we recognise is really just another slice from the vast John Boyne universe: testament to his wide interests, audacity, and skill. He is certainly ambitious. 

Here in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom the unnamed narrator born in AD 1 has the novelistic trait of NOT aging with the years so that in AD 214, as he continues his own story, he is 10 years old.  Although events in the narrator’s life remain in his history no matter where the story takes him, and the story take him all the way to 2016 and on to 2080.  

However, there is a feeling of A Traveller … being squeezed into the gambit that Boyne has prescribed himself. A person throughout their lifetime doesn’t exist alone. Primarily it’s to do with the family: these people travel along with you. Boyne overcomes this by deeming that if the  protagonist linearly exists across centuries then his parents and siblings must also; names, except for their initial capital letter, change to suit the location; hence his brother Junius – in Palestine AD 1, becomes Jouni – Turkey AD 41, Juliu – Romania AD 105, and so on. Events also stay in our memory and can have repercussions in later life, these too are noted but the names of places and the principle players change similarly. This is acceptable and can be easily assimilated into the readers’ understanding of what the writer has defined; but all this has a cumulative effect: a distancing from the protagonist. And when magic, or is it divine intervention? intercedes to save our hero’s life – Greece AD 1223, an even broader distance is put between reader and protagonist; a protagonist that up to this point had been a centre of rationality, atheism and, to some degree, morality.

This did not change my enjoyment of the book, it’s still a fascinating, and unique read, but that enjoyment is skewed from my other experiences of Boyne’s work. There is not the same engagement I felt with the characters of his other work. This is a different book. So what is Boyne’s point here? 

Someday, we may build towers taller than the eye can see, fly through the sky on wings, even live among the stars. But know this much; the things that surround us may change, but our emotions will always remain the same.

Humans will always be human.

The cause and spread of the Black Death (The Plague) was not known until the 19th Century, certainly not in the 14th as described in the chapter Norway AD 1349. But, the reader can object to these aberrations, like little jumps – Hey! Hang on a minute! – or accept that the universe of the book need not be exactly the universe of the reader. However, the more the reader has to adjust their universe from the one expected the more removed they become from the text and the less chance of engagement.

I haven’t yet read all of Boyne’s work – that’s an on-going pleasure – but A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is not the book to knock The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) from the No 1 spot of the best of Boyne’s work; nor A Ladder to the Sky (2018) from the No. 2 position … in this reader’s opinion.  

You can buy the book, in various formats, here


Social Distancing

by Michael Freundt, a short story.

‘Don’t come near me!’ she screamed.

He struck her hard. With a fist to the face. She fell against the side board with a thud. The sound of breaking glass. Her mother’s set of champagne flutes. The ones with the gold trim. She staggered back instinctively as if she was to blame. She thought of her mother. So this is what she meant. She took another blow to the side of the head and fell to her left. She saw flashes of light and then dark, then bright again. She used a small door knob of the side-board to haul herself back to her feet; back into his range. Why did I do that? He hit her again. Harder this time. The door was still open a bit. She fell against it and heard a rib crack. Knives rattled together like rocks in a can. It took her a moment to focus. She knew she didn’t have much time. She yanked open a drawer. She reached inside.

‘What are you doing?’ he said.

She reached further in among the knives.

‘You wouldn’t dare.’

She pulled out a gun, turned and pointed it at him. That made him stop.

‘What’s the fuck!’

‘Stay away from me,’ she said. Her voice cracked.

‘What’s that!?’

‘What’s it …?” More words were hard to say. She swallowed, blinked, and wet her lips. Her left eye throbbed. ‘What’s it look like?’ She could feel her heart bumping in her chest. She wanted to run.

‘Where did you get that?’

‘Does it matter? Get away from me!’

He took a step back. She felt the taste of rare control.

‘What are you doing with a gun in the house?’

She thought this was funny. ‘Well, considering…’

‘Whose is it?’



‘I can use it!’

‘You don’t know a fuckin’ thing abou…’

‘Try me,’ she said mildly. She could see he was unsure and she tasted that feeling again. She straightened her back. She winced and wondered if she could really go through with it.

‘Give it here,’ he said like a Dad.

‘No,’ she said like a child.

He looked at her.

She held his gaze. She swallowed.

‘Is it loaded?’ he asked.

‘ … I don’t know.’

He stepped towards her.

‘Maybe.’ The sound and feel of that word surprised her. She felt she had the upper hand. It occurred to her that he wasn’t in control as much as she had always believed he was. She had given in to him on so many occasions. Even the choice of this side-board; it was too high she had always thought. Why did I do that? It wasn’t just the gun, it was him. He faded a bit. But if the gun wasn‘t loaded everything would change. There was only one way to find out.

He stopped. ‘You kept it there? In the cutlery drawer?

‘You never open the cutlery drawer.’

She could see his anger rising again.

‘What the fuck is my wife doing with a gun in the house, for fuck sake!?’

‘Just as well, ay?’

‘You fuckin’ bitch,’ and he moved.

She lowered the gun and fired.

The sound was weak. Surprising. It didn’t fill the room. It hurt her ribs. She thought for a moment she hadn’t done it right. But yes, it was loaded.

He screamed and dropped to the floor holding his knee. Blood oozed between his fingers. His howls filled the room.

She thought of pigs.

‘You fuckin’ shot me!’

Yes, I did. Yes. That’s what I just did. She repositioned her fingers around the thing. It was warm now. Still pointing it at him. It was her only help. Her life-line.

His screams became moans.

‘Get back from me. Get back.’ She took a step forward from the sideboard but standing on her own felt uneasy. ‘Get back!’

He managed to sidle his arse on the floor and retreated from her.

She took a step back to lean against the sideboard. She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out her phone. Her breathing was shallow and quick. She felt a little dizzy. With flickering glances at the man writhing and groaning on the floor she dialled a short number.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘The police. Yes. An ambulance. Yes. I’ve just shot my husband. What? No. He’s fine. There’s a bit of blood.’ She told them her full name and address and put her phone on the side board. She tried to control her breathing slow it down, breath deeper.

‘You’ll go to jail for this,’ he managed to say.


‘Why the fuck did you go and shoot me!?’

‘I didn’t kill you,’ and she raised the gun, pointing at his head. ‘I could’ve.’ And then with an intent and attitude she had never used before. ‘Can you feel it?’


She waved the gun slightly to the left and fired into an armchair. The sound was week and tinny again. Like it was before. Maybe that’s how it is. Maybe that’s what a gun sounds like. She waved the gun back to his head. ‘Feel it now?’ She could see that he could and it felt good to her. ‘Now you know what it feels like.’

‘You’re fuckin’ crazy!’

She gave a little harrumph and said quietly. ‘Now I know what it feels like.’ She smiled.

‘You were havin’ it off with that sparky bloke.’

‘What? No.’

‘Susie Driscoll told me.’

‘She saw me fucking the electrician? No. She saw me talking to Jim in the car park.’

‘Oh, it’s Jim now, is it?’

‘Yes. That’s his name. Jim. He offered to load my boot for me. I said thanks but it’s OK. He told me about his little boy’s questions about the virus. They were apposite and cute.’

He gave a grunt. ‘You were flirting.’

‘I smiled at him, yes.’

‘What else?’


‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Not my fault.’

‘Well this is your fuckin’ fault. You shot your husband in his own living room. In the knee! For Christ’s sake. I’m a fuckin’ rugby player!’

‘There’s no more runball until the end of next month; and that’s even in doubt.’

‘Stop calling it that. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘You need to see a doctor.’

‘You’re the one gushing blood all over the floor.’

‘A psychiatrist. You need to see … Did you plan this? So you could be with Jimmy boy?’

‘You’re such an idiot. Why would I plan a punch to my head? Three punches to the head. Ha? How would I plan such a thing?’

‘You’ve had a gun there all this time. Loaded.’

‘Mum gave it to me.’

‘She’s always hated me.’

‘She doesn‘t hate you. Just like she doesn’t hate Dad, despite what he did to her.’

‘If she’s anything like you, I don’t blame him.’

‘You’ve never blamed him.’

‘Can you get me some pain killers?’

‘No.’ Her right arm was aching. She let it drop a little.

He moved towards her and she pointed it at him again with added intension and used her left arm to help her hold it out.

‘Getting tired?’

‘Yeah. I can use my left hand,’ and she took her right hand away and shook it. ‘But I’m a little shaky with my left, I might miss your other knee and hit something else.’

‘ … let’s just think this through. What about the boys?’

‘You’ll have to look after them.’

‘I’ll be in hospital.’

‘For a few hours maybe. You’ll be home before the boys get back. You can hop from room to room. You don’t need legs to cook, do the washing, do the ironing.’

‘I don’t know how to cook.’

‘Turn on the gas. Put water in a pot. Add beans. Wait.’

He dismissed her sarcasm with a ‘Phut … What if I’m not back?’

’You’ll have to call someone. Your sister.’ She looks at her watch on her right wrist and moves the gun back to her right.

‘The police aren’t coming.’

‘They’ll be here.’

‘You’ll going to jail.’

‘Oh, did you hear on the news this morning? The jail’s overcrowded making social distancing impractical so they’re moving low security prisoners into hotel rooms, and anyone on remand will be placed in isolation in a hotel room too. I’ll be in The Intercontinental for two weeks courtesy of the government, ordering room service, and watching my own Netflix choices.’

‘If the police were coming they’d be here by now.’

‘They’ll be here soon.’

‘I could press charges.’

‘So could I.’

‘For what?’

She used her left hand to touch her left eye and cheek. She could feel its heat and her vision through that eye was now blurry. It must look like spilt blueberry trifle. She curled her fingers in to point at her face.

‘What’s that compared to a gunshot wound?’ he said.

‘I was protecting myself.’

‘A little lop-sided don’t you think?’

‘No. What more were you capable of?’

‘Oh please. I was upset.’

‘I was bashed because you were upset.’

‘I thought you were screwing the electrician.’

‘I wish now I was.’

He pointed at her. ‘That’s evidence against you. When I’m asked to give evidence in court I’ll say you wanted to screw the electrician. You told me so. I wasn’t wrong, you see?’

‘It was a sentence of conditional wish fulfilment, not admission of an action but a desire that something could happen but didn’t, knowing what I know now.’

He sighs. ‘Spare me.’ And then, ‘I’ve got to get attention to this knee.’

‘They’re on their way.’

They looked at each other, each daring not to look away. Being alert. Everything in the past was a blur. It was like their lives had appeared out of nowhere. They began from this moment. How did they get to this? This moment of no past and no idea of the future. Time seemed stretched. How long since either had spoken?

He moved onto his other hip. She watched him closely, gun ready. He used his left hand to get his phone out of his pocket. ‘I’m going to make my own call. Call an ambulance. To report a shooting.’ He held his phone up. ‘Here you are in our family home with a gun pointed at your wounded husband.’

She shot the phone out of his hand. The sound disappeared as quickly as it had erupted.

‘Jesus!’ Blood appeared on his fingers. ‘Fuckin’ hell!’

‘I’ve got three left. Just stay where you are. And wait. And while I’ve got the floor you can tell me about you and Susan Driscoll.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

‘We’ve been locked down here for three weeks. Jigsaw puzzles. YouTube. Rugby’s Best Tries. Bananas in Fucking Pyjamas. We haven’t been out of each other’s sight. Now that the boys are back at school you thought it would be good time to bring it up. Reinforce yourself. Mm? How could Susie, not Susan but Susie Driscoll, you said, Susie! How could she speak to you about … You’ve been calling her on the loo. Haven’t you?’

‘I know what you’re doing,’ he said but she could see he was rattled. He wouldn’t look at her. He sucked the blood from his fingers.

‘So do I. I know exactly what I’m doing.’ She tried hard for her face to reflect what she wanted to believe. 

‘Let’s be sensible here. What are we going to tell the police?’

‘The truth.’

‘And they’ll believe you?’

‘I shot you. Deliberately. In the leg – not in the head or the chest – in the leg, to stop you hitting me again. What’s not to believe?’

‘It’s the end of our family.’

‘Probably, yes.’

‘Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you shot me.’

‘Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you hit me.’

‘I’ve hit you before.’

‘I didn’t have a gun then.’

‘We got over it.’

‘Did we? You may have.’

‘Sometimes men hit women.’

‘Oh Yes. It’s a psychological attribute. I forgot. Like a dick.’

‘And we have reasons.’

‘So did I. And my reason is stronger than your reason.’


‘I was defending my life. You were defending your masculinity.’

This had never occurred to her before. She’s never been in this situation before. But now it all seemed so clear.

‘You won’t be able to see the boys.’

This knocked her. ‘… I’ll have visiting rights.’

‘Only if I let them.’

‘What are you going to tell them?’

‘That you shot me! Twice!’

‘And when they ask why, Why Daddy? Why did Mummy shoot you? What will you say?’

‘That you don’t love me anymore, that you were in love with Sparky Jim and wanted me out of the way so you can be with him.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘You won’t have the opportunity to say so.’

‘So our two sons have become rewards in a game.’

‘What does that mean?’ He could see she was wavering. ‘That’s what you always do, rub my lack of a degree in my face. Sprout some literary jargon that means shit when you come down to it. I speak plainly. The boys are mine.’ He could see water in her eyes and saw his chance. ‘Look. We’ve got time to agree on a story. I won’t press charges and you won’t press charges. I’ll have a few hours in hospital and maybe you’ll have to give a statement or something. We’ve been cooped up here at home for three weeks. We got on each other’s nerves. A … a …. a little game developed without the kids around, you know, what you read about, some kind of kinky game thing. You know. And if we support each other we can go on as before. We just have to agree. Agree and stick to it.’

‘Same as before.’

‘Yes. Same as before. The four of us. Together with the boys. Otherwise you’re on your own. And you’ll never see your kids again.’

The two adults stared at each other. They heard cars outside coming to a stop. Footsteps on the path, then nothing on the grass, then louder on the porch. Then an urgent knocking on the front door.

‘Open up! Police!’

‘Coming!’ she called out.


She broke her gaze from her husband, walked to the front door, opened it, turned the gun around and handed it to a gloved police officer. ‘He’s in there.’

Several officers walked past all wearing masks and gloves. One of them, a female officer, took her by the arm. Para-medics dressed all in white plastic like attendants in a nuclear power plant followed with equipment and a stretcher.

About twenty minutes later as he was being wheeled to the ambulance and she was being led to the police car she turned to him and … she thought of telling him about the lasagne in the freezer but said, ‘Jamie doesn’t like tomatoes in his sandwiches and Russ won’t eat overripe bananas.’


Old Filth by Jane Gardam

British writer, Jane Gardam.

First of all, the title Old Filth (2004) isn’t about anything untoward: it’s the acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong; and if it’s about anything it’s about how our childhoods create us adults.

We first meet Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth, in his very latter life: a statuesque man, private, handsome, charming, brusque, and mildly famous. Gardam then cherry picks events from his life: birth, schooling, the War, but saves the most tantalising bit of news for the end. No spoilers here.

The book is a delight! Gardam’s economical prose – where most of the humour lies, and there’s a lot of that – and her wry eye for the eccentricities of the British character and, in particular, the blatant indifference and cruel incapacity of the British to care for their young make you smile, grown, laugh, sigh, and then shake your head in disbelief, all in the same paragraph. Children seem to appear by magic, get sent away from home as soon as possible and then become exactly like their parents whom they hardly know, but are expected to love and obey. Blood may be thicker than water, but water is far more versatile and doesn’t leave stains.

I was impressed with Gardam’s complete control over the reader, her confidence in her authorial voice: I would’ve followed her everywhere, anywhere and I believed whatever she wanted to tell me. Her close writing and sparse dialogue do most of the characterisation – dialogue is good at that – and Gardam also has a healthy respect for the reader. Time jumps around but she never lost me.

Highly recommended.

She has been quite prolific since she was first published in the early seventies, in her forties – she is now 92 – and her nine novels and ten short story collections (she also has written thirteen children’s books) leave a lot of searching, collecting, and reading to look forward to.

In 2015, a BBC survey voted Old Filth among the 100 greatest British novels.

I hate the idea of sequels,” Jane Gardam told The Guardian in 2011. “I think you should be able to do it in one book.” Nevertheless her The Man in the Wooden Hat came out in 2013 which is more of a companion piece and focuses on Filth’s wife Betty, a shadowy figure in this book. And then in 2013 came Last Friends, and again not really a sequel but another companion piece focusing this time on Filth’s arch-rival and later neighbour, Veneering, again briefly mentioned in Old Filth.

Here is a charming video of Jane Gardam reading the opening of Old Filth.

Here you will find Old Filth and other Gardam books in various formats including a boxed set of the so-called Old Filth Trilogy.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American writer Jeanine Cummins

Just after the book was released in late January 2020 Oprah Winfrey announced her latest Book Club pick, American Dirt. Professional critics and some Latinx writers criticized Cummins for telling this migrant story in an American voice for American readers sparking a literary and Twitter debate about who can write what. More white and Latinx reviewers got in on the act creating another debate about not only who should write them but who should review them. The design of the blue and white cover includes shiny silver barbed wire; Cummins had her nails emblazoned with the design AND the barbed wire motive was also used in the table decorations at a book launch event: a symbol of oppression being used as ‘pretty’ decoration. Flatiron Books, the publishers, expressed dismay at the reaction, acknowledged  ‘serious mistakes’ including announcing that Cummins’ husband was an ‘undocumented immigrant’ without revealing he is Irish, and cancelled the book tour for ‘safety’ reasons.

It could be argued that the Latinx writers were annoyed that it took a white American woman to tell one of their stories when it should be left up to them; to make it authentic. No Latinx writer had written this story. Cummins did.

A letter to Oprah Winfrey, signed by 142 writers of varying ethnicities, asks her to ‘reconsider’ her endorsement of American Dirt. It states;

Cummins’s book is, yes, a work of fiction. Many of us are also fiction writers, and we believe in the right to write outside of our own experiences: writing fiction is essentially impossible to do without imagining people who are not ourselves. However, when writing about experiences that are not our own, especially when writing about the experiences of marginalized people, still more especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved—when this is the case, the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.

You can read the entire letter here.

Cummins book The Outside Boy (2010), a coming-of-age story set in Ireland in the 1950s received no such criticism from Irish writers.

When a writer writes fiction they create an entire universe in which the story lives. This universe is usually the same universe as the reader; usually but not always. Science fiction and fantasy novels exist in an entirely different universe, and some fictions, like Alan Ball’s television series, True Blood, exist in a universe similar to ours but not the same: vampires exist in its universe and are treated similarly to the way gay people are treated in ours. Similar but also fictitious.

American Dirt is in a universe created by Cummins and it is her job to make the reader believe it. It could be argued that the universe of American Dirt is its own, and noone elses.

So, what about the book itself? It’s terrific. Well written and utterly believable. The action begins in the very first line with a bullet through a bathroom window. Its violence is not overt but, at the same time, terrifying. Lydia, a middle class bookshop owner and wife of an investigative journalist, and her eight year old son, Luca, are the only survivors of a cartel massacre of her entire family. Sixteen bodies are strewn around what was a family barbecue. Lydia and Luca run. But always with the threat of the cartel assassins not far behind.

They seek out friends but don’t want to implicate them. They hide, but cannot rest, ride on the top of trains, risk their lives at every turn, at every jump. They meet other refugees and immigrants who all are susceptible to rape, kidnapping, and extortion, but it is entirely possible that one or more of the allies they attract are also in the pay of the cartel they are running from. They cannot trust anyone, but of course, they do; they have to.

But immigrants spend a lot of time waiting: for darkness, for decisions, the right person, the right moment to run again. These moments are where the humanity, relationships, and back-story play out enriching the story and rewarding the reader.

This reader is not a Mexican middle-class bookshop owner with a massacred family so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Cummin’s invention but that does not concern me. What concerns me is that the universe of Lydia’s world, the universe created by Cummins, is believable. It is. The story therefore has veracity. I went with it all the way.

Highly recommended.

Here is an American television panel discussing the American Dirt controversy.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin

English author Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) on the 2017 British 10 pound note

I once stumbled on a television series, Lost in Austen (2008) in which a modern young free-talking young woman, Amanda, finds, in her tatty London bathroom, Elizabeth Bennet in a nightgown. When the apparition disappears Amanda thinks that perhaps her Pride and Prejudice obsession is, well, sending her loopy; but when it happens again, this time Lizzy is dressed for travel, Amanda steps though the ‘door in the wall’ (portal loo?) leaving poor Miss Bennett in modern day London (2008) and Amanda in Longbourn, the Bennet’s residence, in Hertfordshire, 1813. Amanda passes herself off as Lizzy’s friend while Lizzy is said to have gone to the ‘city’; how true! I may not have knowingly chosen to watch a program like this but it was extremely well done, funny, and pulled no punches.

Pride and Prejudice has become an industry. There have been several film adaptations as well as a very popular TV series; the story has been sequel-ised and pre-quelised, with and without zombies; as a graphic novel and a serial vlog; the writers of a scientific paper were inspired to name a pheromone in mouse urine as darcin, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females; and in 2016, a scientific paper published in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases speculated that Mrs Bennet may have been a carrier of a rare genetic disease, to explain why the Bennets didn’t have any sons, and why some of the Bennet sisters are so silly, although Mrs Bennet seems more like a sufferer than a carrier.

The famous first line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife

could easily have been written as

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of no fortune, must be in want of a husband

without any loss of artistic veracity.

However, what is obvious from the short first chapter is how effective dialogue is at painting character; and that reminds me of a Sydney writer and creative writing teacher (who shall remain nameless) who told her students to stay clear of dialogue. A foolish assertion in my opinion.

Yes, the prose style is dense, the characters manipulating, and the plot well known but what is notable is the tone. It’s slightly sarcastic, ironic, but dry: the basic formula for all romantic comedies ever since.

Just out of interest, Jane herself had three romances: 1) Tom Lefroy was a nephew of her close friend Anne Lefroy. Knowing that Tom would lose his inheritance if he married a nobody Anne put a stop to the romance by getting Tom to Ireland, where, many years later he became the Chief Justice; 2) Jane had a seaside romance with a clergyman but before he got a chance to meet the family he died; 3) Jane accepted a financially rewarding marriage proposal from a much younger and inappropriate young man called Harris Wither. After a sleepless night she broke it off in the morning causing a scandal.

It could be argued that Austin’s 6 novels are really 6 variations on the same plot: girl meets boy; girl hates boy because of (insert specific reason from each novel); girl comes to her senses; girl marries boy; the end.

I’m tempted now to read Emma (1815) considered by some to be her best.

You can download a free eBook here. All of Jane Austen’s work are available free online.

You can watch a very entertaining video about Pride and Prejudice from Crash Course Literature here.

Here is a free audio book edition.

Actress by Anne Enright

I love a first page. Page one of a book is like turning a corner in an art gallery and seeing the painting you’ve come all this way and spent all this money and used all this time to see. Enright on page one of Actress makes two things very clear about the first person narrator: she’s the daughter and she’s cynical.

And, yes, I have her eyes … indeed, whole paragraphs were penned about bog and field, when journalists looked into my mother’s eyes.

Not limpid pools, corn flowers, or the depth of her soul, but bog and field, which comes, fascinatingly enough, not at the end of the sentence but in the middle; I loved that, and had I not known anything about Anne Enright or her work and this book I’d picked at random from a bookshelf, that line alone would’ve demanded I buy it.
And then on page 7 this

…and I was already in love with you.

So it now appears that the daughter, Norah, is writing to someone. A lover, or seemingly, a past lover. A husband as it turns out.

However, I had to adjust my expectations; this is not a linear narrative, more like a cable-knit sloppy-joe of a book. Nameless and numberless chapters constructed as riffs on a memory, a character, an event with Norah sometimes daughter, sometimes omnipotent narrator. Character and place are important but not time; action and detail tumble over each other, Norah a child and then older than her mother would’ve been had she been alive. But anchoring everything is her mother, Katherine O’Dell, the famous Irish actress, but not her real name, and not Irish: she is her own self creation and from the moment she pops out of her mother, literally, on the most theatrical of sets: a staircase, to her most self-absorbed act, and the central event of the book, her shooting of Boyd O’Neill in the foot, she is a force.

Fundamentally it is a story of the interplay between stardom and domesticity told by Norah, a key player in both who is trying to understand how both came to make her the person she has turned out to be AND the truth about her mother.

One of the joys of Anne Enright’s writing is the writing itself. Here she describes her mother’s curtain call technique:

Her lingering, luvvie curtain call never changed – that clearing of her gaze as though realising the audience had been there – oh my goodness! – all along … It is all so surprising, Oh, there you are, a hand to the crowd. And, Yes! Here I am, the same hand at her breast.

(Although, her most memorable appearance, and the one that immortalised her, is not in a play or film but in a butter ad)

And here Norah describing one of her own sexual partners:

He had a way of swallowing a joke, with a little bobbing lift of his chin, as though agreeing with himself while tossing down a peanut.

The reader has all the freedom in the world to picture Enright’s characters in their size, clothes, and expressions but little descriptions of their eccentricities like this anchor them in your mind.

Detail has always been, and remains, the writer’s tool to elicit believability, but what works better is forgotten detail:

The ‘treatment’ [LSD] happened some time after the butter ad, apparently, but rack my brains though I might, I can not say it made any difference to her level of eccentricity at the time.

but then writing about not remembering something is detail nonetheless, just more effective.

This book is actually like a letter and like all letters it is in the 2nd person and it allows Enright to employ conversational aspects: asides, self-reflection, and pent up confessions. But it is also a novel and these peculiarities of letter writing could explain why the readers I’ve talked to said they didn’t like it or didn’t finish it, which is the same thing really, because they were expecting a story. But, although it isn’t written as a linear story, it is a story, and a satisfying one, you end up with, a bit like it’s a picture you end up with when you finish a jigsaw puzzle, you just don’t know what the story is while you’re reading it.

Enright’s last book The Green Road (2015) was her best thus far, although, surprisingly, it traced the same form and content of her Booker Prize winning novel, The Gathering (2007). Actress, is hewn with the same skills but it’s a very different creation, and I recommend those who didn’t finish it to try it again; just adjust your expectations.

Here is an interview with Enright talking about the creative process;

and here is an interview, back in March, hosted by Andrew O’Hagan for the London Review of Books about this work.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

I started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, but put that aside to read this, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. I was reminded of the similarity in both books of the rigid fathers, each obsessed with Christianity and its dictates so wholly against human biology, psychology, and behaviour bringing pain to their families and perpetuating ignorance of human nature. It reinforced my belief that it is not the religion itself that breeds such misguided fervour and obedience to unshakable rules of behaviour and social relationships but the administrators of religions, who have been for millennia, men, and who for the most part have been, by their own dictates, denied many of the human emotions and subsequent relationships that they have tried so hard to mould. Men have a lot to answer for. 

Salt Creek (2015) is the story of fifteen year old Hester Finch, and her large family, down on their luck in 1855, who are forced to abandon their relatively comfortable existence in Adelaide and move to a scrap of land in the remote South Australian south east bordering the Coorong: a long narrow lake, one of many lakes at the mouth of the Murray River. Lording over this family is Stanton Finch, a failed dreamer and ever hopeful, but inadequate, business man whose financial failings have forced the move. He is a devout Christian and, of course, runs his life and dealings with an indefatigable belief that god is on and at his side and a man whose good intentions are forged by a religion so irrevocably in an English manner that it seems almost incomprehensible that this religion, that Stanton Finch wants to implant onto the land and the people he inhabits, was founded in poverty, heat and dust by a poor Judean carpenter with lofty ambitions for his neighbours. Such a craftsman has more in common with the natives of Salt Creek than the white Englishmen who deem to claim him as theirs.

Life is hard, and his wife, Bridget, feels like a rib in her heart, the family’s fall from society. Her husband, thinking he was doing her a favour managed to retain two of her prized possessions: a chaise lounge and piano. But they fit uncomfortably in the shabbily built wattle and daub house her husband has built and she is reminded daily of their fall as she has to sweep and clutter around such out-of-placed furniture.

Being a good Christian man, Stanton Finch, tries to deal fairly with the local Ngarrindjeri people but his understanding is tainted by white civilisations’s attitudes coloured by ignorance of what is ‘right’, ‘natural’, and in god’s image. A young Ngarrindjeri boy called Tully, joins the family but not because of Mr Finch’s civilising influences, no mater how much the man would like to claim, but because of the boy’s innate intelligence and courage. There is a bible in the house but also a book by Charles Darwin, brought into the house by Fred Finch, a younger son, a sensitive artist and naturalist who sketches Tully as a young man sitting in a chair by the wood stove reading Darwin: an memorable and apt image of the traditional and modern that lies at the heart of the novel.

Hester, tall, independent, and competent is the book’s first-person narrator and its moral backbone; Adelaide, Addy, her younger sister is the tear-away and at the centre of the moral dilemma of the clash of cultures. There is humour, love, tragedy and the tension between god, family, and safety.

The writing is accomplished, impressive, and moving. Highly recommended.

One day I will leave here, and it will not be with another man or because of a man … How could I respect such a person … It was as if he had been wounded and I was nothing but salt.

Here is Lucy Treloar talking about Salt Creek, writing from landscape, literary prizes, and reading from the text.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas pic
Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas

Writing historical fiction has many pitfalls, writers and writing guides will tell you, the most dangerous is, undoubtedly language. To the people of the eastern Mediterranean in the first and second century CE there were several languages: Latin for the military administration of the Roman invaders, Hebrew for schools and prayers, Greek for civil administration, and Aramaic for the person in the street, plus local languages and dialects. Rendering all this into English for readers in the twenty first century needs decisions. Traditionally, using modern expressions of the potential readers has been considered wrong; although Hilary Mantel took no heed of that with Wolf Hall where the dialogue is decidedly modern.

Tsiolkas too has made decisions. He uses the word ‘sex’ to refer to genitalia and ‘rutting’ to refer to sex; he notes what language characters use, Greek, Syrian, Latin etc.; his chosen lexicon contains many words of the extreme: death, light, darkness, heavens, honour, hades, blood, hate, etc.; and old words and phrases, like ‘beloved’, ‘betrothed’,  ‘begetting’, ‘we have much to be thankful for’, ‘he is wondrous’; no negative contractions; and violence, lots of violence. Life is cheap, monstrous, and death – as well as life – is slow, bloody, and full of pain; and it is dotted with modern expletives, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’. There is no smiling while reading this book.

Generally his decisions work. Any frowns I found myself making over his use of language were minor and, as readers must, I went with him and tried to give in to his choices. However, as the story progressed I found this more and more difficult; phrases as ‘… he is singing the light’ , ‘he betrays the light’,’…the God is rapturous …’, ‘I am blinded in white flame’, ‘he has to bring him towards the light,’ ‘to never again be in light.’ So many uses of this word ‘light’ that such phrases, as they peppered the pages more and more in the later stages of the work, became meaningless. The language reminded me of second-rate TV evangelists who use generalisations and ambiguity to hide uncertainly, to impress, not to inform. I lost trust in the writer; I thought Tsiolkas himself did not know what he meant. And the editors must take some responsibility for this.

It is the story of the adult Paul, St. Paul, the Paul who has been credited with writing a large chunk of the New Testament, also known in Hebrew as Saul. Tsiolkas doesn’t tell the tale linearly, but in seven sections, each one concentrating on characters in Paul’s life, some in the 1st person, some in the 3rd: a young mother, Lydia, from Antioch whom he converts; his jailer, the crippled soldier, Vrasas, in Rome; his disciple Timothy. But also around Paul himself: his early persecution of Christians; his blindness, his imprisonment, his death?  jumping decades back and forth between 35, and 87 CE twenty three years after his death.

As a piece of imaginative writing it is astounding in its detail but the writer’s attempt to build the tale’s veracity for a modern readership failed for this reader. I was outside of the story, watching it, knowing it was just a story with no emotional involvement. He made too many little decisions but not enough big ones. Too many times I was told how a character feels, never shown. Tsiolkas lost me, disappointed me, but I read it, well, skimmed it, through to the end.

You can buy the Kindle, and other editions, here.

Linear Bush Yam by Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Australian Alhalkere artist Emkily Kame Kngwarreye (1910? – 1997)

Whenever I think about abstract art prompted by a conversation, TV program, newspaper article, or question I always think of that painting. I saw it only once in a commercial gallery so I’m not sure if this is the actual painting, but if not it was very similar; Kngwarreye painted many like this: yam dreaming.

She was an extraordinary woman, tiny but forceful, born around 1910 in the Utopia community in the Northern Territory, 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, and was raised in the artistic Anmatyerre tradition. She began painting on canvas in 1988 and for only about eight years produced an extraordinary bulk and variety of work, over 3000 paintings, recognised and collected nationally and internationally. She was unmarried and childless which was unusual and so had a hint of outsider about her. She died in 1996.

I have a soft interest in art and no more knowledgeable about it than the next person; but what I’m trying to do now is describe how this painting made me feel, because it was the feeling that I remember as the strongest. I wish I had had the sense to write it down then; remembering it now renders it difficult to put into words. The best and simplest way to describe that feeling is that it felt  – right: it couldn’t be any other way than what it is. Along with this feeling of right came an equally strong feeling of wonder that right it most definitely was and that I had felt it. Art had never affected me like this before or since. It was close to a revelation but without the what!

Michelangelo's prisoner pic
Prisoner (slave) by Michelangelo

On a visit to Florence many decades ago I went to see Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia which was a memorable experience, but even more memorable was the Hall of Prisoners one has to walk down to get to the famous statue. On either side of this hallway are incomplete statues of male nudes looking as if they are emerging out of the stone and giving credence to Michelangelo’s reported utterance that he always saw the figure in the stone and all he had to do was discover it, chip away the extraneous stone, set it free. Michelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci both coveted the same piece of marble; Michelangelo won. We will never know what di Vinci saw in it.

I’ve grown to believe that this idea can be applied to all works of art, be it music, painting, sculpture, or story: they have the quality of existence, before the artist discovers them and makes them known to us. I saw Michelangelo’s five hundred year old discoveries eleven years before Kngwarreye discovered for us her Linear Bush Yam.

Knowing a piece of music or story well can create this feeling of inevitable existence but this same feeling hit me the moment I saw Kngwarreye’s painting; the mystery of it is still palpable after all these years. It wasn’t something in me, it was something in the painting. I still don’t know what it really is.