7½ by Christos Tsiolkas

Greek-Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas.

I have heard several heated discussions about this book. I’m a Tsiolkas fan but my appreciation has waned since his Damascus which was an ambitious work and although there were some evocative sections it was ultimately a disappointment for this reader.
In fact I’ve been reading Tsiolkas since The Jesus Man (1999) – good, then Dead Europe (2005) -fantastic, and then, of course, The Slap (2008) – brilliant, then Barracuda (2013) -good, Merciless Gods (2014) – very good, then Damascus (2019) – not so good.
I found this one in a swap-library at a modest beachfront hotel in Candidasa, Bali, my island home now for 12 years. So, I picked it up and exchanged it for several copies of The Economist.

All of these matters politics, sexuality, race, history, gender, morality, the future – all of them now
bore me.

It’s a novel about a writer going away by himself to write a novel. It’s a mixture of autobiography,
memory, criticism, natural history, angst, and confession.

Most writers are glorified and bewildered by the fiction writing process. The difficulty of squeezing in the writing process into one’s life seems a rich seam of inspiration. And it is! But not, I fear, for readers. What Tsiolkas has tried to do is worthy of trying but there’s a reason that it’s not attempted more often. I’m not really interested in how a stylish but comfortable pair of shoes is made; I just want them to be stylish and comfortable.

Although he tells us there are 3 stories he wants to write we only really get to know one: Sweet Thing.

A young couple, Paul and Jemma, who met as porn movie actors, and their son, Neal. An elderly gentleman offers Paul $US150,000 for 3 nights with him. They need the money. There isn’t a moral dilemma here, the tension is the trip back to the USA, and not the encounter with the desotted man but the attempt to reacquaint himself with friends, family, and country; a trip into, and escape from, his personal idea of hell, with undertones of, and references to, Dante’s Inferno, the first part of 14th Century writer’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy.

The marketing blurbs on the covers put me in mind of a writer who isn’t comfortable with his idea, a
long held idea, he tells us, and so needs to isolate himself with only the idea for company.

truth and imagination are enemies.

I don’t believe that: fiction, via our imagination, can help us see the truth. He says he wants to write about beauty. But what does that mean? Beautiful people? Beautiful actions? Beautiful relationships? He loves the idea of writing about beauty but doesn’t articulate how it may be achieved. What is most vivid in this book are the scenes where beauty is nowhere to be seen.

Every artist, very writer, must have an element of the superstitious to them … we have faith in
alchemy.
Yes.

He gives in to the temptation of writing as therapy, yet doesn’t acknowledge that such self-absorption
sidelines the reader. All writers must know that writing is, as he says, via alchemy; writers want that
alchemy to be understandable, enjoyable, want it to resonate with the reader, and so edit it to make it
more so. I don’t know how a writer can ever ignore the reader.

I am a writer, and I believe in the utility of by accident, its necessity.

There are moments of verbosity that sound forced but can be forgiven since this is not so much a novel as a DIY manual – with examples.

Tsiolkas’s narrative jumps seamlessly, grammatically speaking, from his minute by minute existence at the beach house to the story he’s writing, Sweet Thing, to memories, some long lost, as he paddles around the beach and house while trying to write. The ‘work’ is always present. This may make the reading confusing but it doesn’t. Writers, I’m sure, know this feeling, which causes great annoyance to the people who share their lives: their current project is forever taking the writer away from, and getting in the way of, them and the present.

There are pesky little mistakes that the editors should’ve picked up but didn’t. He describes an eagle
circling the ocean and beach then diving into the sea and emerging with a fish in its beak. Is this an
attempt at writing about beauty? Eagles are raptors and so grab their prey with their feet as they skim
the water. This mistake doesn’t worry me, as it might others, since I no longer assume that the universe
of the book I’m reading is my universe. However, it does grate a little. Maybe it was a cormorant or booby; they do dive for their prey; he just thought it was an eagle, or wanted it to be an eagle. And no bird eats on the wing. But, maybe it was the image, ‘of the profound amorality of nature’ he was after: ‘… drops of blood and flesh [that] fall from the fish it has taken; they fall softly as rain …’ The image is what’s important even if the details are wrong. Anyway, I don’t let it undermine the veracity of the narrative. Some would.

There wasn’t a time when I wanted to stop reading, although I did skim the more purple prose of his
nature writing and his repetitive description of bodily odours. I’m interested in writers and their writing
processes, as some readers are, and would’ve liked more of it. We get the main bits of Sweet Thing but not the continuing, and potentially intriguing, detail. This reinforced my idea that he never quite trusted the idea to stand on its own and so wrote it into a story about the writing of it. It isn’t clear whether the work, Sweet Thing, actually was finished, or written. The end of this book is more about the end of the retreat and getting back to his partner than the end of the novel he was trying to write.

Once I finished reading, I felt like it wasn’t written to be read; it was written to be written. As a reader, I
felt a little sidelined, left out.

There’s no doubt Tsiolkas is a writer of talent, authority, and variety. What this reader wants is for him
to return to the truth-telling of family. He is SO good at that. It is, after all, a bottomless well.

Here is a longish interview, via the Avid Reader Bookshop, with Tsiolkas about 7½.

You can buy the Kindle or Paperback edition here.

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 Broken Shore by Peter Temple

Australian writer Peter Temple 1946 – 2018

I’d forgotten I had this book on my shelf. I read it when it first came out in 2008 with trumpets blaring and accolades galore. I remembered little about it. I don’t read much crime fiction but made an exception with this one. I lost my entire library on our move to Bali twelve years ago so don’t know how this copy got onto my shelf, nor what made me read it again.

Temple is famous for his Jack Irish crime series, but this is a stand alone work which won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award: the UK’s Crime Writers Association’s best crime novel of the year (2007)

My copy is looking a bit faded and world-worn, a bit like its protagonist, Joseph Cashin. He’s a good guy cop, unambitious, world-weary, smart, a body racked with past injuries, but with a healthy disrespect for authority.

It was darkening when Cashin reached home, the wind ruffling the trees on the hill, strumming the corrugated iron roof. He got the fire going, took out a six-pack of Carlsberg, put on L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti, sank into the old chair, cushion in the small of his back. Tired in the trunk, hurting in the pelvis, pains down his legs, he swallowed two aspirins with the first swig of beer.

Short sharp sentences separated by commas, semicolons too posh for Joe Cashin. It gives the narrative that staccato American punch epitomised by the famous American crime writer, Dashiell Hammett. But 3rd person here, not 1st.
His dialogue between Aussie men is perfectly obtuse, as if each alternative line has been omitted. I was surprised at the extent of the ‘foul’ language, although appropriate for these Australian male characters. The rural setting and tone belying its contemporary (2005) release.

A well respected and wealthy local is found dead in his home. What seems a simple break-in-gone-wrong, exacerbated by a botched police chase which leaves all three suspects dead, leads everyone to think case closed, despite or because of police efforts. All except Joe Cashin that is. The crime formula is honoured: tight-lipped family, newly exposed secrets, increased sinister misdeeds, a seemingly unrelated but vicious murder, a dead man proves not to be, lies and police corruption, a few red herrings, and a sexul dalience. Good crime fiction stuff. It’s staying on my shelf.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

A television movie was made of it in 2013 staring Don Hany and Claudia Karvan, directed by Rowan Woods from an adapted screenplay by Andrew Knight. You can watch the trailer 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.

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.

I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes

Terry Hayes, English-Australian screenwriter and novelist

I think it was John Irving, the winner of both the National Book Award for a novel and the Oscar for a screenplay, who said that writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean. T.H.

I Am Pilgrim has to be the holiday read to top all holiday reads!

And despite living up to the hype slashed all over its covers, it is also not what I expected. But it is long: 888p.
It begins traditionally enough with a baffling crime seemingly unsolvable and then several chapters of interconnected back stories. Then in Part 2 another novel begins: the development of a young jihadist, simply known as The Saracen, and his decades long quest to bring down America and so similarly destroy its ally, the Saud family, rulers of Saudi Arabia, whose leaders murdered his father.
It reads like a film script; not surprising since Hayes is a noted screenwriter, with short chapters, each like a single-set scene with usually a stinger of a last line; I call them waterfalls: they link smartly into the next scene, or, in a writing trope, they lead you to hastily turn the page. Lines like, ‘I was in the North Tower when it came down’ and ‘It was time to enter the dark and brooding house’ and ‘… it was a terrible thing I ended up doing to him.’

And then there’s the simple lists of what he plans to do and the outcomes he expects, to be followed by another page turning device: predicated hindsight – lines like “but I couldn’t’ve been more wrong” or “I should’ve taken more notice of the photo but I didn’t.” And the interest level goes up a notch or three.

The plot is international: Manhattan, Bodrum, Berlin, Jeddah, and the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The threat is not nuclear, or extraterrestrial, but, ironically for the times, viral. Firstly there is the murder in a sleazy hotel in Manhattan: a woman’s body is found in a bath full of acid, face down but because of the acid she has no face, and her fingertips have been removed as well as all her teeth. She is unidentifiable.

There is the first-person hero: a spook, an intelligence officer, a spy, a detective, and all-round nice guy who isn’t adverse to doing unspeakable things but only because he has to. He has many names so you are never sure which name is real. The villain, The Saracen, you know as a teenager and understand why he becomes the deliverer of evil; you almost like him. However, his unspeakable deeds are worse.

But then there is a death in Bodrum, Turkey, which the local authorities are convinced was due to misadventure. Our man knows it’s murder but needs to prove it. And all the while we jump back to The Saracen who is consolidating his self-manufactured weapon of mass destruction, starting with medical school. His is a very long term plan.

The faceless woman in Manhattan. The Saudi teen with revenge via mass-death on his mind. And a drug dazed tourist falling over a cliff to his death in Bodrum. Are they linked? Of course they are but for most of the book it’s hard to see how. But the deadly virus is manufactured, tested, packaged into 10,000 vials, and posted; the Saracen’s job is done. Our man’s task is to find out how and where the shipment is and when it will land. The climax is unputdownable!

Terry Hayes was born in Sussex in the UK but his family moved to Australia when he was five. As an adult after working as a journalist and investigative reporter he was hired by George Millar to do the novelisation of the original film, Mad Max (1979) and then subsequently several other Mad Max reincarnations and worked as a producer and/or screenwriter for TV shows like The Dismissal (1983), Bodyline (1984), Vietnam (1987) and Bangkok Hilton (1989) and several movies, including The Year My Voice Broke (1987), Dead Calm (1989), Payback (1999), and From Hell (2001). I Am Pilgrim (2013) is his debut novel and his second The Year of the Locust is yet to be released. MGM has acquired the film rights to Pilgrim with Hayes as writer but I wouldn’t be surprised if the project is re-done as a TV series; a far more suitable format for such a sprawling yarn, in my opinion.

Here is a very interesting, although over an hour long, interview with Hayes about writing I Am Pilgrim and where the inspiration came from.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

from a low and quiet sea by Donal Ryan

Irish writer Donal Ryan

Right from the beginning I should tell you that the writing is assured and fine, but for those of you who want signposts to tell you who says what to whom you’ll be disappointed: the dialogue is imbedded in the prose, unpunctuated, so this one may not be for you.

This is proving to be popular with contemporary writers: the last three books I’ve read have been written with minimal punctuation and certainly no  dialogue punctuation. I was skeptical at first but once you read it, reading it as if it’s being read to you, it’s clear what is dialogue and what isn’t.
 

  It’s about three men: Farouk, his country torn apart by war attempts to save his family and then can’t believe the worst of reality; Laurence, Lampy, a young man with an old chip on his shoulder the size of the bus he drives, a bastard but there’s absolutely nothing he can do about that – but it might be why Chloe doesn’t love him; and John a man bewildered and damaged by idle patents and left with ‘a filthy soul’. The final chapter begins enigmatically and these three men and their relationship to each other become clear only in the last pages. It’s really three back stories before the final chapter sews them all together; a very different form of a novel.

Farouk’s and Lampy’s chapters, and the final one are written in the third person but with many a patch of close writing: third person writing that’s  a-l-m-o-s-t in the first; but John’s chapter is all in the first. I don’t think there’s anything significant about that; it’s just how it turned out. 

The prose, in every chapter, is strewn with very long, sometimes beautiful, sentences full of clauses separated by conjunctions that create a tense tone of urgency as if the speaker has to rush and get as much information into the sentence as possible before they run out of breath because there’s a full stop coming up and there’s more and more important things to say and there’s unease in the voice, which sets the tone, as if there might be failure ahead and the rush is to beat it before the full stop comes into view and there, it’s almost upon you but there’s just another very important thing to say and yet another one and here it comes and there it is.

Alex Clark in The Guardian in mid-2019 acknowledged the boom in Irish contemporary fiction writing and credited its rise to fearless publishers and writers. However, writers have always been fearless; it’s the publishers alone that should now deserve the credit. Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019) which takes eight sentences to fill over a thousand pages, was on the Booker shortlist that year, and was picked up by a small publisher Galley Beggar Press (GBP) which also took Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013). That took nine years to find GBP and is considered a ‘difficult’ book. Form and style have broadened literary fiction’s borders and I don’t just mean with the diminishing use of punctuation. Colum McCann’s Apeirogon (2020) on the Booker shortlist for 2020 is called ‘a novel’ on the cover but isn’t: it’s a great read but it’s definitely creative journalism. The only thing made-up about it is its form. 

from a low and quiet sea was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and long listed for the Booker Prize (2018).

If it’s writing with characters deeply drawn and language that makes you read sentences out loud just for the joy of it then this one is for you. 

Here you can watch Donal Ryan reading from this book from a low and quiet sea.

You can buy the book here in various formats. 
 

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Indian writer Amitav Ghosh

This is what novels can do: take us away from what we know and set us down in other worlds, at other times, to see the universe from another angle and hopefully reassess our choices and privilege. Yet, we still, usually – well, I do – continue to read books about and written by, English-speaking muddle-class whities.

What is most remarkable about Sea of Poppies (2008) is the language:

A quartermaster lured the boy into the ship’s store with a mind to trying a bit of udlee-budlee. But chota as he was, young Benjamin didn’t lack for bawhawdery – set upon the old launderbuzz with a belaying-pin and beat him with such a will that his life-line was all but unrove.

He also assigns formal speech peppered with malapropisms to paint an innocent, although well-meaning, young Caucasian character through her attempt at what she thinks to be  proper conversation.

Also the wonderfully colourful Indian-English of yesteryear full of jangled word-order and inappropriate gerunds “too much not time to be arousing and uprising…’ juggling accents and idiolects from the lowest poverty-stricken rice farmer to a Zamindar, the Rajah of Raskhali who looses everything to indignant hubris.

And it isn’t just his wild, wonderful, and inventive lexicon but it’s also the exotic time and place full of words for staff, house geography, clothes, food, ship-craft, and colloquialisms.

You would think all this verbal unfamiliarity would send you rushing to the dictionary; a tiresome task if all too necessary – although reading it as an eBook allows this to be less so. But no. The overall meaning of a sentence, conversation, or paragraph is always clear even if some individual words are not.

One of the joys of the writing here is it’s inventiveness and possible authenticity. Ghosh acknowledges his debt to several publications, including Thomas Roebuck’s An English And Hindoostanee Naval Dictionary Of Technical Terms And Sea Phrases As Also The Various Words of Command Given In Working A Ship, &C. With Many Sentences of Great Use at Sea; To Which Is Prefixed A Short Grammar Of The Hindoostani Language (1813).

However, whether it is authentic or inventive doesn’t matter, it’s a joy to read, and reading some sections out loud is a very pleasurable thing to do.

The book, and it’s a big one, the first of a trilogy, is set prior to the first Opium War (1839-1842) when the British successfully came to the aid of the opium merchants when the Qing Dynasty of China banned the drug from its shores. It is divided into three sections: Land, River, Sea and centres around a schooner, the Ibis, and the exotic collection of humanity that find themselves on and below its decks as it sails from Calcutta to Mauritius.

The characters are varied, three-dimensional, and extraordinary. There is Deeti, a widowed poppy farmer saved from her husband’s funeral pyre by a handsome ‘untouchable’, Kalua; Zachary Reid, a mixed race American sailor; Serang Ali, the leader of the lascars and colourfully mangles the English language along with various other tongues; Neel Rattan Halder, a Raja convicted of forgery; Ah Fatt, a Parsi-Chinese opium addict; Paulette, a French orphan raised in India; Jodu, her childhood friend; and the extraordinary Nob Kissin Baboo, a would-be priest. All of these major characters, and many minor ones, have colourful backstories, some comic, some tragic, some heart-thumping, some tear-jerking but by part three of the novel they are all on board the Ibis, bound for Mauritius and their various destinies.

As well as all the above there is Ghosh’s descriptive, rich, and luminescent prose: describing the love in a young girl’s heart along with its negative opposite, not hate but cowardice for saying nothing for fear of rejection; describing the effect of the first lungful of opium smoke in a man’s breast, nulling the gravity in his limbs and creating delusions clean of doubt; to untying a knot on a bowsprit as it plunges a sailor into a mighty wave and out the other side, like threading a needle with courage.

It’s a great read and reinforces what novels do best: carry us away.

Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 2008.

The epic story, The Ibis Trilogy, continues with River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015).

-oOo-

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here you can watch an interview with Amitav Ghosh as he explains his sentiments behind Sea of Poppies.

And here is a little documentary with Ghosh as he talks about the background to his iconic Ibis Trilogy.

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

  ‘But you live in Croydon,’ he said.

  ‘What on earth has that got to do with anything?’

  ‘If you don’t know, then there’s very little point in me trying to explain.’

   ‘I’ll have you know that Croydon is becoming quite gentrified these days.’

   ‘I just prefer a postcode that begins with a SW, that’s all,’ said George.

‘My father instilled certain values in me from the start that have stood me in good stead over the years. Carrying a monogrammed handkerchief, for example. Having a good tailor. Matching one’s belt with one’s shoes. The stuff of civilised living.’

‘You can’t make life decisions based on letters of the alphabet.’

‘I don’t see why not.’

It sounds like Boyne’s channelling Noel Coward! But if you’re out to write a comic novel Coward isn’t a bad role model. 

Boyne calls The Echo Chamber, his 13th novel for adults, a farce and indeed it is; and it should be read as one. Outrageous characters with appalling attitudes, self-serving decisions with names to match. Boyne, I think, had a ball writing this one and after his pummelling via social media by internet trolls and hate-loving twitter-ites over his last YA book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica (2019) – he could’ve avoided a lot of angst had he called it My Sister’s Name was Jason –  he had a lot to say and scream at, and a lot to get off his chest.  

The plot involves a famous British couple, George Cleverly, a Michael Parkinson-like BBC TV talk-show host; his popular novelist wife, Beverly Cleverly, who since her first success now employs ‘ghosts’ to pen her novels; their three Children, Nelson, an anxious nelly who can’t make up his mind who he is but likes to wear uniforms; Elizabeth, a social-media acolyte whose narcissism is only second to that of the youngest, Achilles, who scams older men via his charm and good looks while waiting to get laid by any pretty girl who sees him. It’s a family to loath but you also hope it will suddenly see the errors of its ways and move to the Outer Hebrides, or at least to somewhere without an Internet connection. 

This book is a lot of fun and is nothing like anything Boyne has written before. I hope he’s freed himself from his victimhood, taken a deep breath, and, since he’s blessed with booming sales, he will eventually, once all the PR appearances, chat-shows, and media interviews are over, settle down and chill out and let his novelistic talent that created, The Absolutist (2011), The History of Loneliness (2014), and (his masterpiece) The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017), surge again. THAT I’m looking forward to very much. 

The Echo Chamber is a great quick read to make you laugh out loud, groan a few times, and blow away a few lockdown cobwebs.  

Tring, a small town NW of London, in Herefordshire, holds an annual Book Festival; you can watch John Boyne being interviewed by fellow writer, Clare Pooley, at the 2021 event and talking about The Echo Chamber here

You can purchase the book in various formats here

The Promise by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It’s been 7 years since Galgut’s last novel, Arctic Summer (2014), a novelisation of the latter years of the English writer E. M. Forster, so The Promise, his latest, has been greatly anticipated. 

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the narrative voice. The writing is free-form: no quotation marks; dialogue and narrative merge – but you’ll be surprised how distinct and recognisable the dialogue is –  and usually in the 3rd person but with a little 1st, (my mother died this morning) and even a  peppering of the 2nd, like he’s talking to me, you, the reader, throwing asides at you, (check out the pic if you don’t believe me). Sometimes a character speaks aloud in a sentence started by the narrator; sometimes the narrator is embodied with feelings and sarcasm (Alwyn and his spouse, sorry, his sister…) It takes a few dozen pages for this free-form to meld into a tone, a voice, an attitude, but it does, and when it does you’ll be greatly relieved. You can relax, and once you do and let this voice work on you, you will have an entertaining reading experience. Although the narrator is unnamed, as most 3rd person narrators are, this one has attitude, likes, dislikes, and lets you know them. Changes of scene and characters happen mid sentence giving the narrative an unplanned wandering song-line, like a slideshow on a phone. It gives the work an attractive chatty tone but one that leads you deep inside the minds and actions of these flawed characters.

The book is divided in to 4 sections, each for one of the main characters of the Swart family, Ma, Pa, Astrid, and Anton. But the main character is Amor, the youngest, who is a child of 10 when her mother dies. However, days before, on Ma’s death bed, Amor overheard Ma’s dying wish: Salome, the family’s loyal, long-serving, bare-foot black maid, is to be given ownership of her rented small and ramshackle house and land. Pa agrees. This is The Promise. Over the following decades South Africa sheds its hated Apartheid system, Nelson Mandela becomes president, black rule fails almost everybody’s expectations and hope for a brighter and more prosperous future; not unlike the trajectory of the disintegrating Swart family; like the slow decline of Salome and her house. Amor goes her own way but the promise is forever on her mind and whenever she returns (Return to South Africa feels more like a condition than an act), only for family funerals, her determination to have the promise fulfilled is thwarted. Will the promise be fulfilled when she is the only one left? 

The knot of races in Galgut’s native South Africa seems never to be unloosed. This story could be read as a metaphor for the country; as could the plight of Salome; as could Amor’s bruised determination; yet there is hope in that she could be the only one left standing with a future to build, albeit an unknown one and obviously difficult. 

The telling, but unconscious, thoughts of the whites (… so many black people drifting about as if they belong here) pepper the text and each time cement the notion that change will always remain elusive. Do all the whites have to die before the blacks can claim their place? 

Highly recommended.

Galgut’s The Promise has made it onto the 2021 Booker Prize long list. If it gets to the short list, as it should, it will be his third: the first In a Strange Room in 2003 and The Good Doctor in 2010. The links will take you to my blog posts. 

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

UPDATE November 4 2021: Galgut’s The Promise won the 2021 Booker Prize!