Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

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British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

Having read a few of the 19 volumes written by Gale, A Sweet Obscurity, A Place Called Winter, The Aerodynamics of Pork, Ease, Notes from an Exhibition, A Perfectly Good Man, one thing stands out: he’s very good at self-discovery; by that I mean, his protagonists cope with discovering who they are. In this latest, Take Nothing With You he does it again. This is a coming-of-age story.

Actually it is two stories about the same person: Eustace as a pre-teen discovering his love of the cello and boys, and coping with his parents; and Eustace as a fifty-something coping with thyroid cancer, mortality, and an on-line, but serious, love affair with a British soldier in the Middle East who he’s about to meet face-to-face i.e., kiss, for the first time.

Although told in the third person but from the point of view of Eustace, the narrator is so close to our hero, think of him as an imp sitting on Eustace’s shoulder, knowing, seeing, but not understanding everything – just like a 10 year old. James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker since 2007, calls this ‘close writing’, or if you prefer a more literary moniker, ‘free indirect discourse’. I prefer Wood’s term as it creates the idea that the third-person narrator could very easily slip into the first-person narrator, so close are they. Fellow British novelist Edward St-Aubyn in his quintet, which has become known as The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992-2012), uses such a technique for all of his major characters; it’s like the narrator-imp jumps from shoulder to shoulder using the language and tropes of each individual, depending on which shoulder he sits. In Take Nothing With You (2018, Gale’s 16th novel) this close writing enables Gale to create a narrative of the boy’s parents and their disintegrating marriage, including his mother’s secret, that Eustace is unaware of. This dramatic irony is what makes Eustace’s small-town family life, in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside holiday town in North Somerset, so interesting. We readers know more than he does.

By the way, his mother’s secret (no spoilers here) is never mentioned, but you know it because Gale lets you know it.

As an adult Eustace is more at ease with himself and the world, and although his thyroid cancer and its treatment are troubling, his new, as yet, unconsummated romance gives him hope and joy. The world is no longer a mystery to him, as it was when he was young, and he is sanguine about his future; but he hasn’t told Theo, the soldier, about his cancer as he doesn’t want to sour his only communication with him: their daily Skype calls. In this older Eustace narrative the action takes place mostly in the lead-lined hospital room where he goes for radio-therapy treatment and is advised, because of the radiation, that anything he takes with him has to be disposed of, hence he is told to ‘take nothing with you.’

The narrative never follows Theo which makes him less of a character and more of a metaphor for hope. But its Eustace’s hope and Eustace is who we care about.

For a lonely, quiet, and sensitive boy discovering a passion for the cello is heart-warming. Gale plays and performs on the cello himself and if you are interested in music, or a player of any instrument yourself, these passages are a delight. His passion is palpable and these scenes often blurred my vision.

Gale is allergic to clichés; in fact, I get the impression that he tries to invent clichés and then vows never to use them again. He is also a word-smith and sometimes his word choice takes you by surprise: ‘…heedlessly in love’ is almost a story in itself with a beginning, middle, and end.

Gale’s characters have meat on their bones and ideas in their heads. They are people you love, loath, want to see triumph, or fall on their arse.

Any Gale book is highly recommended.

You can buy the eBook and other editions here.

And here is Patrick Gale talking about Take Nothing With You and the three books that influenced it.

The Cat Sanctuary by Patrick Gale

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British writer Patrick Gale lives on a farm in Cornwall and plays the cello,  both baroque and modern. He chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival and is patron of the Penzance LitFest.

This is an early novel, his 6th, from 1990.

It’s about three women in a house.

The narrative is like a favourite aunt’s doily with a little trio of characters in the centre intricately embroided; there are a few men involved but only around the edges, woven in like a lace border, to frame it.

Or it’s a piece of chamber music, intimate, intricate, but allowing each character to the fore, their solo bit, not only to enlighten us about her but also about the others.

Gale’s voice is at an appropriate and un-judgemental distance, sensitive to the humour that can emerge from conflict. He knows the full picture but hones in on specifics, to add colour, backstory, and therefore understanding while stitching the story for us. He’s at his best with family politics.

It inspired an understanding of the complexity and the importance to storytelling of gossip. Gossip: noun,  intimate detail about the people we don’t know. It’s television equivalent is soap opera. Intimate detail about the people we do know is higher art because we know the reasons, motivations, inevitabilities. It’s television equivalent is serial drama. We get to know these three women very well.

In novels, but not in television or film, this is achieved – not only but mostly – by the narrator; knowing what people are thinking, and sometimes the joy of reading about what people are thinking is knowing that what they are thinking is wrong, misplaced, or delusional. This, getting narrative information from what is not written – reading between the lines, is a hallmark of good writing.

Dialogue – in novels, television, and film – like “What’s wrong?”; “Are you OK?”, and “Do you have something to tell me?” are examples of bad writing. They should be completely unnecessary.

Good writers trust their readers to work it out; bad writers don’t trust their readers at all and spell it out.

Gale gives us juicy revelations; makes us doubt what we thought of something/someone; and forces us to do a lot of work (thinking) to assimilate the full complex picture. We are not always conscious of this but it is the major cause for answering the question “What was it like?” with “It was great. I loved it.”

Judith, a successful novelist lives in an isolated Cornish house with her lover, Joanna, a photographer. Judith’s estranged younger sister and a recent, and very sudden, widow, Deborah, comes to stay, to recuperate, reassess, get back on track. Three women in a house, all in a variety of positions on the road to contentment. Not far away lives a widow, Esther, who runs a dishevelled sanctuary for cats. And here is my only minor gripe: the metaphor: cats, women in a house all on the road to safety is very obvious. There was no need, Patrick, to explain it.

Conversations, backstory slotted in with ease, and three men, one in the present, two in the past, all pivotal are woven in with skill.

Here is a small sample of his writing: he’s describing the, now deceased, mother of the sisters, Judith and Deborah.

She had always drunk in company, but after her husband’s sudden death, she ceased what little entertaining she had ever managed and began to hide her bottles like so many lovers in a farce … A small rounded woman,  her mother had appeared on a first encounter like some roly-poly matriarch in a child’s picture book, or a motherly glove puppet – nothing on her mind but baking and sweetness, nothing beneath her skirts but clothespegs and starch. One surreptitious glass too many, however, and her nursery rhyme equilibrium was upset, revealing all manner of spite and grievances to the unready … ‘I hope you realise that we only stayed together because of you graceless bitches,’ was the sort of declaration she would make when nearing the point of nightly collapse.

In my previous post I described my frustration at finding something to read that sparked my interest. I found this one. I read it in a weekend so I’m now in the same predicament. To avoid another collection of wasteful days I’m going straight to another Gale, his latest Take Nothing With You, which I should’ve blogged about already.

So what did I think of The Cat Sanctuary? It was great. I loved it.

You can buy the ebook, and/or read a free sample, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

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Australian journalist turned novelist, Trent Dalton

This is a rollicking good read. Entertaining, insightful, rich in characters, with a heavy dose of autobiography, and only marred a little by the ending; more about that later.

Eli Bell is 12 years old and the younger son of dysfunctional but estranged parents, Frances and Robert, and they all bump along day to day on the outer hazardous rings of petty criminality in Brisbane in the 1980s. Rugby, television, drugs, poverty, junk food, cigarettes, XXXX beer, and a surprising amount of love for each other get them through every day. Well, almost. Eli’s ‘family’ is extended to include his mum’s boyfriend, Lyle, the first man he ever loved – it takes him time to feel that for his dad; Slim Halliday, his babysitter, mentor, and possible murderer, but certainly notorious escapee from Boggo Road Goal; and his older brother, August, who has decided not to talk since he and Eli were possible victims of attempted filicide. He communicates only with Eli who has learnt to decipher his brother’s air writing. They are inseparable.

The story is told in the first person and Eli’s colourful language, obvious intelligence, unwavering loyalty, and passion for words make him an unforgettable character. There’s a love story, or love fantasy, woven into the second half that is centred on a Courier-Mail crime reporter, Caitlyn Spies, eight years his senior. Eli hankers after, not only her lips and other parts of her body, but also a job like hers: he aches to be a crime-busting journalist. But does he make it? No spoilers here.

There is a lot of back-story to get through before the narrative really starts, so the opening is a bit slow but once Dalton gets in his stride you are grateful for the time taken; he also weaves in a flavour of surrealism that doesn’t quite work, for this reader, but it’s easy to go along with it and to allow yourself to be ‘taken for the ride.’

And what a ride!

It has all the flavour and action of a television crime story right down to the satisfying climax and the just-desserts handed out to the bad-guys.  But there is a climactic tag, a chase sequence that is contrived, too long, and unnecessary. It’s like this sequence has been lifted from another genre and medium; it sits uncomfortably, and ‘tacked-on’, at the end of such a well-written story. But this is a minor criticism.

Yes, it would be perfect for a television, and an adaptation is in the pipeline, produced by Joel Edgerton, but, surprisingly, it is the theatre that has snaffled the goods first. The stage version is scheduled for the 2020 season of the Queensland Theatre Company for the Brisbane Festival in September of that year. Sam Strong, QTC’s artistic director will direct the adaptation written by Tim McGarry.

You can watch a promotional video here, where Dalton gives away a few secrets of inspiration for this, his debut novel with the books that helped him write it.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here.

Lanny by Max Porter

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British writer, Max Porter.

When you open a book to page one you usually do so with a blank mind,  but an expectant one; waiting for the writer to paint you a picture which becomes – the quicker the better you hope – understanding: place, time, people, action. But right from the start of Max Porter’s Lanny this assumption is useless.

Don’t be put off, if by the end of page 9 you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. Let the snatches of village gossip and easy chatty phrases wash over you like breezes, like waves: exactly like they do on the page – yes exactly like waves, not in straight lines.

Watch and listen to Max Porter talk about the making and the essence of his book, Lanny.

In the first sentence you are introduced to Dead Papa Toothwort; at this moment, and for a few pages to come, a mystery. The more you read the more theories of his identity test themselves until you think that Dead Papa Toothwort is a presence, something like an invisible, all-knowing spirit that flits, swoops, and hovers in and over a village, through its stories, myths, and pliable imaginations, past and present. The strange beginning and pages of wavy lines are necessary: once you accept the existence of Dead Papa Toothwort, and you must, Porter prepares you to accept a whole lot more (no spoilers here).

But the village is real, as real as a novelistic village can be; a dormitory nameless village on the outskirts of London – and we finally meet characters in that village, and we are on safer ground. Understanding, place, time, characters, action emerge like a happy vista through a rising fog. Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad and Pete. They tell you their stories in the first person, and all of their stories revolve around Lanny. A boy. An exceptional boy. Everyone loves Lanny. He scares people sometimes, especially his parents. He sings when he walks. He collects stuff like a bower bird. He soothes anger with a well-chosen question or a song.  And then Lanny disappears.

This book is not a conventional book. Porter has created something different, and what that something is I’m not sure, yet. What it has in common with a conventional book is that it is satisfying, a strange, but satisfying read. There are some conversations and dialogue but not in the familiar form – punctuation is minimal, but no quotation marks – yet it’s always clear what you’re reading, who is speaking, what is being said. You get to know these people very quickly. It’s a small book, I read it in two consecutive afternoons.

In the middle of the book when the town, the police, the media, turn on these three people the tension, the fear, and the unease is told through multiple voices; it isn’t important who says them; you can guess who says them.

Lanny is the centre of the story, but Lanny isn’t given his own voice. You learn to love Lanny via those around him. Porter gives you recognisable emotions, flawed parents, uncaring neighbours, who themselves sometimes are given a voice; familiar novelistic traits that are compensation for, it seems, for the unconventional beginning and format.

I have only one criticism: I would’ve liked to have witnessed more of Lanny’s exceptionalism; his soothing of anger with a song, for example, than just been told about it.

As Porter says, it is not a book that has much to do with today. There are no mobile phones, computers, or text-speak. It is a book about sound and our imagination and how we need to let a writer tickle that imagination into forms and acceptances that are a little out of our comfort zone.

I urge you to give him that chance.

Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (2015), won many awards and nominations and has been sold in twenty nine territories. A theatrical version was staged in Dublin in March 2018.

You can watch an interview with Porter about Lanny, it’s themes and genesis, here.

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

 

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Australian writer, Patrick Victor Martindale White, 1912 – 1990. Offered but declined a knighthood in 1970. Won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I have had a checkered reading of Patrick White: I started The Tree of Man (published in 1955) when I was too young to appreciate it, so stopped; I started The Twyborn Affair (1979) but, not long in, threw the thing against the wall – I don’t remember why; and in 2011 I read A Fringe of Leaves (1976) several times – for academic purposes – and loved it! It was his first novel after the Nobel Prize and the pressure must have been immense.

The title comes from A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (31):

There, like the wind through woods in riot, 
      Through him the gale of life blew high; 
The tree of man was never quiet: 
      Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I. 

In 1957 Patrick White wrote in a letter, “I felt the life was, on the surface, so dreary, ugly, monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden in it to give it a purpose, and so I set out to discover that secret core, and The Tree of Man emerged.”

“I wanted to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time, I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally my own life since my return” … to Australia in 1948. 

He uses the word ‘poetry’ in both these quotes. If you see this word on the cover, or more usually on the back-cover, of any book it usually means ‘literary’, ‘difficult’ and such a book won’t be found in an airport bookshop. It is, apart from anything else, informative.

The Tree of Man is about life. Stan Parker, a young ordinary man, (Life had not yet operated on his face) marries Amy, a young orphan (…had not yet felt affection for any human being) and takes her to live with him in a rough hut he has built on a plot of rough inherited land in the bush. What happens to them is the plot. What they feel, and usually don’t understand, and the discovery of meanings, insights, and poetry is the narrative and far more important; the description is the place and what it does to them, and the dialogue is how we get to know, and feel for, all the characters. These are the elements of a novel: narrative, description, and dialogue. And in the first two is where the poetry is.

Early in the book, after a devastating flood Amy Parker takes in a stranded boy, assumed an orphan. During the boy’s first night with the Parkers, she finds the lad late at night sitting by the fireplace looking at the dying fire through a piece of red glass:

‘What are you doing here?’ the child asked. 

‘Why,’ she said, ‘I live here. This is my house.’ 

But her skin was cold. She was uncertain of her furniture.

That last line of two short sentences is an example of literariness. The link between her last spoken line, This is my house and the next line of prose, But her skin was cold is not linear. There is a knowledge gap. And there is another, bigger, gap between that line and the next, seemingly strange one, She was uncertain of her furniture. What has to happen here is for the reader to fill in those gaps. This reader filled in that the child was warm but she wasn’t, so at a disadvantage; the child had control here, and she, not much more than a child herself, was intimidated by him. The second larger gap I filled in with an even stronger feeling of inadequacy: she knew nothing about anything, not even her furniture, which suddenly seemed irrelevant to her, as if she had no say in it; again like a child.

The child was looking at her hand. It was lying with some lost purpose along his arm. She still had to learn the words that she might speak.

This is what literary fiction does: the thought processes are not linear so requiring the reader to use their intuition, experience, and self-trust. What the writer meant by all of this is irrelevant – they’ve either moved on to their next book, or are dead – it’s in the realm of the reader, always, and what the reader thinks is correct.

This is an Everyman story of how people behave based on their own wishes and desires and to each other, the poetic majesty of living, loving, and making a life for themselves out of the scrubby wilderness but without any of the words necessary to express such feelings and mysteries. They talk to each other as uneducated country people do while the narrator reveals everything else.

Like all readers, we make a pact with writers to accept their omnipotence and let them lead us blindly along the tracks, twists, and turns of the narrative, no matter how ordinary the action is. The ‘novel’ is in the narrative. If you pick up a Patrick White novel and open it this is what you have to do. This is where the pleasure is.

Along the way, in the narrative, not in the dialogue, there can be incredible wisdom.

But he respected and accepted her mysteries as she could never respect and accept his.

This is profound. In one short sentence White encapsulates the essence of male-female relations that lie at the heart of countless novels, films, musicals, and, indeed, relations between the sexes for centuries, as in the song, Marry the Man Today, from the 1950’s musical Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

Marry the man today
Rather than sigh in sorrow
Marry the man today
And change his ways tomorrow.

As a literary work about the essence of mankind such pronouncements are the result of his intention: to discover the ‘poetry’ of human existence. His sentence instantly paints that archetypical relationship in which the husband unquestionably, but usually because he just wants peace between them, follows the tenants of his married life as stipulated by his wife, but she is forever ‘nagging’ him to change his ways. During this scene where White uncovers such universal truths the pair are talking about selling a calf: he thinks they have too many, she thinks the heifer, she calls her Nancy, will fret; she worries about their daughter who has cried over the extraction of a splinter under her fingernail, he thinks she’s doing fine if that’s all she has to worry about. Character based dialogue, simple and personal, but the wisdom and truth is in the literary narrative with language that the uneducated characters of their own story would never use.

His simplicity had not yet received that final clarity and strength which can acknowledge the immensity of belief. So instead of praying he went into a café and ordered a plate of food.

What people mean when they say ‘I believe…’ is often ‘I believe in the believing’. Believing comes with ritual, mannerisms, uniforms, social contact, expectations, and the resulting satisfaction. People pray without a sense of who they are praying to. They believe in the action of praying. It’s comforting. It’s doing something. Something that many people would approve of, and is therefore satisfying; like ordering a plate of food, which, realistically, is far more comforting because it actually arrives.

The narrative follows the couple, their two children, Ray,  who doesn’t turn out well, and Thelma, who marries a solicitor and has the opportunity to wear furs and crocodile skin shoes and so she has the excuse to look down on her parents. Stan and Amy Parker have two grandchildren and it’s possible they might like to make things right with the children and the children’s children; but it’s too late: it’s not their call any more. They missed it, and it’s inferred that the next generation, as parents, will do no better.

White explores the dichotomy of parental love and how we have no control over it: you love them as kids but maybe not as adults. They grow-up and grow-away. Even the people with we live with for decades we learn to take for granted. So when the grandson  comes in wet from a storm …

And Stan 

The old woman began to remember her husband whom she had forgotten. She forgot him now for whole days.

White started out to find the poetry in life, instead he found the truth.

 

 

Unfettered and Alive: a memoir by Anne Summers

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Anne Summers: journalist, feminist, and writer. “If we constantly rewrite history to fit how we see things now, we forget how things used to be and, equally important to future scholars, how we used to see them.”

Anne Summers and her publishers have produced a handsome book, and it begins, unusually, with a letter to her thirty-year-old self: Dear Anne, and so, consequently, it’s written in the second person; and it sets the beginning as at that time, when she was thirty, and summarises what went before which was told in her first autobiographical work, Ducks on the Pond 1945-1976 (1999).  So this, a re-cap, is a neat and imaginative way to catch you up, especially if you haven’t read the earlier work; which is, by the way, now only available on Amazon US at $115.64 for the second-hand hardcover, which is cheaper than the $191.89 for a second hand paperback! However, if you can’t find a copy anywhere else, here’s the link.

For someone who, from an early age, felt profoundly at odds with what the Adelaide world of her Catholic childhood promised her: an identity based on a man and the success, or otherwise, of their children and a future slowly fading into cranky old age and invisibility, she has stubbornly and courageously shunned all of that and forged her own path that has turned out to be something like an open-ended roller-coaster. It’s a crackling tale: ecstatic highs and scary lows; and all along the way the reader gets an insight into the characters she engaged with and the history we all lived through, all in a chatty and self-effacing tone that has you barracking for her as she strides around yet another corner into the unknown, including South Africa, the badlands of western Pakistan – without a hijab, and later as Chair of Greenpeace International which took her, well, everywhere.

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Anne Summers at the National Press Club during the 1980 CHOGM meeting in Australia directing a question at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. photo: Allan & Unwin

The personal is also covered. Her uneasy relationship with her parents, especially her father; the painful rediscovery of her paternal grandfather; there’s treachery and betrayal from colleagues and friends; a health scare; and finally meeting the love of her life, and that started in the photo-copy room! He’d been around all along!

The political years of this chronicle cover Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, and Rudd/Gillard/Rudd: a turbulent, often frustrating – for us, I mean – but never a boring time in Australian politics. Of special note is her calling out the appalling misogyny Prime Minister Gillard received at the hands of the shock jocks, political opponents, and a particular, but faded, cartoonist. Her insights and insider status make fascinating reading as seen from her media perspective (her attitude to Keating changed; her attitude to Howard didn’t); and then in the middle of all that her successful empire building (and spectacular fall!) at the top of the media tree in New York “…if I can make it there, I’ll make it …..” you know how it goes! Well, she did and then, almost immediately, she didn’t!

But when down, or idle – something she hates – an opportunity passes her window or, more usually, she creates one, and so grabs it with both hands and she’s off again!

Running through all of this, is her strong advocacy for the rights of women; their professional fulfilment, all their wishes, needs, and ideas taken seriously, and the universal understanding that they make mistakes but deserve to, and be allowed to, try again. What a rich, informative, and fulfilling read this is.

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2011 Australia Day postage stamp featuring Dr Anne Summers AO.

I’ve known Anne for a few decades usually meeting with mutual friends over a sumptuous meal and a bottle of good red wine or three but I wasn’t prepared for the breadth and depth of her worldly participation nor her personal honesty.

I find scheduling reading time a sign of a good book; but you’ll also need to schedule a breather now and then. Don’t read this in bed. You’ll never get to sleep.

You can find the book here, and the kindle version here. For Indonesian readers you can find the book here.

Be very careful when Googling Anne; you’ll undoubtedly get the English Ann Summers (Ann, no ‘e’) who is a designer and marketer of raunchy women’s underwear.

 

 

Gulliver’s Travels (working title) by Michael K Freundt. A work in progress.

Robert Gulliver Cover picAfter sex years I’ve finally finished the first draft. I’m letting it rest for a while. Here is the Prelude and the first three chapters … a teaser.

Prelude

If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.

 If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into a situation, a family, where you don’t fit in, or if circumstances render your situation suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.

This is a story of a boy who did just that.

1

Off to School with Daddy.

In the early Monday morning pre-light, a masculine hand hovers over a digital clock’s green numbers as they inescapably eat up time: 5:57, 5:58, 5.59 … It taps the ‘off’ button. Waking up is as close to birth as us humans can get; and we do it every day. If only we could remember to think this, maybe we would then try to make this day better than the last. 

Robert Gulliver, fifteen years old but who has suffered a heavy dose of puberty much earlier than most, desirously handsome and dark, raises his arms, hands clasped over his head, and stretches while he flexes and rotates his feet, clockwise then anti. He lies still for a moment listening to the sounds of the house. All is quiet except for the living hum he hears in his ears: the sound of himself. He flings back the covers of his three-quarter bed, swings his naked body over the side, scratches his hirsute chest and yawns. He stands on tip-toe, raises his arms above his body, and stretches, making sure he breathes normally. Hold. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. He then walks out of his room to the bathroom down the hall confident no-one is around at this hour; his parents are still asleep. He is up early because there is so much to do: the day is his first at a new school, the third this year, and it’s only June.

He uses the toilet. Drinks a handful of water from the tap, washes his hands, rinses his face, and dons running shorts, with inbuilt support, then T-shirt, socks, Nikes, and Raybans. He heads out the back door of the suburban family home, down the drive and through the front garden where a neglected, immense, and loathsome stand of Strelitzia reginae, bird-of-paradise, dominates a sparse and neglected garden. He thinks about its place, the family’s face to the world, and wonders if he should get stuck into the garden as no-one else will, but he knows he won’t. He is scared of the garden. He’s never said this and never will, and certainly not tell anyone. Even now, he is only vaguely aware of an aversion to it. But it is fear, nonetheless. 

A Sunday morning only a few years ago when he was still a boy, a real boy, a hairless little boy, he was watering the garden and he let the curved force of the water from the hose in his hand linger in a spot of dirt. A muddy hole appeared and gurgled and mesmerised him, spoke to him. Yes, the sound became voices, the words were unintelligible but the conversation, was definitely hostile. He was caught by the sound, pulled by it, but repulsed by the tone. He strove to catch the words. Who belonged to these voices? He concentrated to understand but it was impossible to discern any meaning or purpose; they didn’t even sound like words, but there were two voices and they were full of hate, unmistakable hate. He yanked himself away despite the tug of perverse curiosity, but the fear was worse; a fear that at any moment he would be dragged into the hateful dialogue and have to explain himself. He never had anything more to do with the garden, any garden.  

Now that he has looked at his own garden, well, Ewan, his father’s, garden, with the eyes of a stranger, he glances up and takes in the whole neighbourhood. A straight street of single storey houses all built the same distance from the road, as if there was a plan, or at least, an intention or will. They all are of different designs, nothing matched, but the predominant feature of the vista was the low fences and walls, that separate each front yard; all different too, like personalities, but in this neighbourhood not very stylish personalities. Some in tact, some falling down or covered in weeds pretending to be ground-cover, or ground-cover that has escaped the ground. It was all built well before the brief social experiment of no fences, vast lawn-scapes that was supposed to be egalitarian but ended up being separatist. No one had a fence to talk over so nobody talked. But here no-body talks much anyway. Everyone’s life is pretty much like their neighbour’s. He knows the neighbours to the left, Joe and Betty Dodd, nice people but Betty looks at him too hard sometimes, like she’s weighing things up, and he used to have a yen to catch a glimpse of Joe Dodd in the shower, which was possible since their respective bathroom windows faced each other; and he did – he had to stand of the bath-rim to get the angle he needed – but once he did he didn’t want to anymore; so now he avoids any close association with them; the ones on the right are renters and are rarely seen. Both left and right gardens don’t seem to be tended much either, but they are infinitely neater than the Gulliver’s. If location defines you, he’s not too pleased about this location and what it might say about him. Cromer, northern beaches, but annoyingly inland from the beach and so a little suburban self-loathing has crept into the street, called an Avenue but looks nothing like one. He thinks about doing something about it – the garden? – the house? – the suburb? – but not sure what, just yet. 

He sets ear-phones to his smartphone, opens the National Broadcaster, and chooses News. He walks briskly at first, gearing up to a power walk, and then a more energetic lope; but never a jog. He concentrates on the news wanting to hear something to agree with but well aware that that won’t happen, but, news, somehow, is addictive. He’s a left-leaning moderate while the government of the day is conservative although led by a broad-spectrum party failing to come to terms with its outdated conservatism and led by a centrist ditherer desperately trying to maintain his leadership until attrition and bi-elections foster in new blood and through which he can bring the party to where he wants it to be. Wrong! Meanwhile he is hounded by the media and old far-right-old-boys on the back bench in equal measure. He plods two steps forward, two steps back, but smiles at the cameras confident that he is making headway; and sometimes he does, but less of a step and more of a shuffle. He frustrates Robert as does the opposition leader who is too much from the old-school believing politics not policy will be his way to the top-job. Those days are over. Ewan is a backbencher in the Labor opposition but the State scenario is pretty much the same as the national only smaller, narrower, and pettier. 

As happens when exercising, the brain can sometimes randomly rove. Robert, despite the battling political voices dishing up platitudes into his ear, remembers, or tries to remember, this morning’s dream that suddenly impinges itself on his mind. He is aware of a blurry Arcadian scene, of countryside, picturesque vistas, streams with verdant banks, but where farming has disrupted the living cycles. Machines have turned the sod, oblivious farmers have planted horizons of alien grasses, and tend ignorant creatures from other climes. Through this he walks becoming increasingly bereft at the damage he sees – you know what dreams can be like – but finally he discovers a field that looks at peace. The headed grasses have been cut, waiting he knows for another machine that will thunder over them making enormous round bungles of what now lies peacefully where they grew. But not now. Not yet. He feels a calmness and an incredible urge to lie down with the fallen stems and all the other naked men where he knows he will find serenity, and an odour akin to kindness wafts over him and … and … but the rest is gone, buried within the maze of neurones and synapses, hibernating, but ready to return unannounced at any inconvenient moment in the future. Or lost forever. But, he knows enough about the mysterious process of writing fiction, practiced by his mother, sometimes with his help, to know that such neurone memory can serendipitously splutter into his fingers as they dance over the keys in a red-hot spurt of creativity. He shares this glorious, but untetherable creative agility with Edith. It binds them. 

By 6.30 as the day brightens Robert is back home. He shaves slowly, his beard is thick and dark: his hormones belie his age. Personal attention takes time. He showers, with an olive oil based gel, ‘washes’ his hair with conditioner, and then pat-dries himself thoroughly. On his face he uses a liquid cleanser, exfoliant, and moisturiser; for his short thick hair – but longer in front, he likes the floppy look, especially late in the day – he uses Aesop Violet-Leaf Balm. It’s the best. He’s tried them all. He believes soap on the body is as evil as sugar in it.

Back in his room he dons a pair of white Giorgio Armani briefs; always Giorgio, never Emporio. He used to iron his shirt the night before but he now prefers to do it in the morning; for a fresher look. There is something meditative about ironing in the quiet. The ironing board always stands waiting in front of his curtained window, under which stands his broad dresser which holds several photographs of himself as a child, so long ago it feels historic, but really it’s only two years, not ten. There is also a photograph of a youngish Sean Connery. Robert’s clean but creased shirts lie in a deep top drawer. It takes him seven and a half minutes to iron a shirt. He cleaned and polished his shoes last night. He takes his new grey and blue school uniform and tie out of their dry-cleaner plastic and dresses. He always uses a full Windsor Knot and a shirt with a cutaway collar: he likes their proportions which he believes suits his facial geography. Robert Gulliver cares about these things.

So there, in his full length mirror on the back of his door, a model for Everyman; fifteen going on thirty two, in more ways than age; a man in a school uniform which, on any other man would look silly, but on Robert? It’s a head-turning magnet of a look.

By the time he enters the kitchen, his parents, Ewan, the back-bencher, is already at the breakfast table. His mother, Edith, an eBook novelist who produces a generally lucrative line of novellas about a woman called Veronica and her sex and work life – sometimes intermingling, – is, as usual, already at her desk, down the hall in, what was, the third bedroom but is now Edith’s writing room.

Ewan looks up from his newspaper, runs his eyes slowly over his son, and gives a frustrated sigh, or is it something else? “You’re going to school dressed like that?”

“Good morning, Ewan!” says Robert, sarcastically as Edith, pencil in her mouth, comes into the kitchen. “Morning, Mother Dear.”

Through teeth clenched on the pencil she says, “What? Don’t talk to me. I’m not here.” She goes to a cupboard, opens it and takes out a packet of Bushells tea. “Ah, two els.”

“You know, Mum, you could’ve googled that and saved a trip.”

“Ssh! I’m not here.”

“Ewan doesn’t like my uniform,” says Robert.

“Oh, come on, Ewan, you know Robert likes to look neat.”

“And does he like having his neat little head punched in as well?” But she’s gone.

“So how would you like me to dress, Ewan?” says Robert cheerfully as he carefully drapes his jacket over the back of his chair and sits, “flapping shirt-tales, a tie skew-wiff and loose, and a crotch dangling to my knees?”

“You could at least try to fit in this time.”

Edith’s head appears around the door frame, “Your toast is in the toaster. Ah! And Ewan, you know Robert needs a cloth napkin.” She disappears again.

“I’ll get it,” says Robert as he retrieves one from the dresser drawer. As he drapes his napkin, edged in lace and ironed stiffly, carefully on his lap, sits and contemplates his Swiss muesli, Greek yoghurt and red papaya, he says “Oh, and while we’re on the subject of fashion, your national leader dresses exactly like you seem to want me to. You’d think with such a glamorous wife she’d help him out; he could, at least, wear clothes that actually fit him.”

“I have no concern for the federal leader, it’s my state leader I’m focused on.”

“That’s the trouble with the Left in this country: all the branches looking out for themselves; and can’t agree on exactly the shade of left they want to be.” Edith appears and goes straight for the cupboard again. “So, what’s Veronica up to these days, Mum? Bonking a client again?”

“What? Oh, she’s bonking a builder,” she says as she takes the Bushells tea packet out again and takes it with her. At the door she turns and says, “Well, she had to, really. He caught her staring at him on the bus. And she was staring but not because of him, but because of who he reminded her of. She tried to explain that to him while he rubbed up against her in the crowd, but no man want’s a woman he fancies to talk to him of another man, does he? She’s having a little bit of a crisis over this one not because she should’ve known, which she should’ve, but because she quite liked being rubbed up against in a public place.”

“Ha!” guffaws Robert, “I love you Mum, for all your distance, you must have a never-ending treasure trove of unfulfilled fantasies, wouldn’t you say Ewan?” And he throws a look at his father who refuses to look up. “And what does this one look like?”

“A bit like you. Can’t chat. Must go,” and she disappears with the packet of Bushells tea but pops her head back and says, “I may need your help later today, Robert. I’ll text you,” and she is gone again.

“I suppose you know most of Veronica’s roots look like you,” says Ewan without looking up.

Robert ignores the comment. “And what has this Monday in store for you, Ewan?” says Robert making family morning chit-chat.

“I have a party meeting at 9.30 so I can take you to your new school if you like.”

“Isn’t it wonderful that all the world starts their work at 9 but politicians like to start at 9.30; makes them feel so, so, special.”

“No, so fathers like me can take children like you to school. I could also have a word with the principal which may, at least, postpone the inevitable.”

“Nothing’s happened yet.”

“It will. You’re a shit-magnet, Robert.”

“And you think dressing like shit will help?”

“At least you’ll fit in.”

“Oh, yes, that old blend-in philosophy; don’t stand out, be grey and everything will be alright.”

“At least it may save your pretty face being smashed in.”

“Nothing touches my face unless it’s out of a beautifully designed and expensive tube.”

“Be ready in 25 minutes,” says Ewan and he downs his coffee, folds the paper and leaves the kitchen.

“You know he loves you, Robert,” comes Edith’s voice sailing down the passage from her office, or was that a voice from a god somewhere?

Robert says quietly, “And so do you, precious.”

 

The car, a Volvo, faded Green and far from the the latest model, is always in the drive, never in the garage as the garage is full of rubbish, sorry, storage. Robert stands with his jacket over his arm waiting for Ewan who eventually emerges from the house.

“When are you going to tend to this Strelitzia?” asks Robert.

“I planted it for the very reason that it doesn’t need tending to.”

“Have you ever read John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids?”

“No.”

“You should. It’s very prophetic.”

“Come on. Get in. We’re late.”

“Get real! We’re only late because you’re late.”

As Ewan backs out of the weedy driveway and joins the morning traffic Robert tends to his seat belt. It takes him five blocks to make sure there are no shirt creases under his seat belt straps.

Robert has for some years been aware of his dislocation within his family and the precarious position, both emotionally and financially, it holds in the weave of the society in which they live: his mother writes salacious novels, self-publishes them online, and receives payment, eventually, via her online publishing platform straight into her bank account which a debit card gives her access to, therefore rendering her daily working life free from any human contact outside her husband and son; his father sits on the back-bench for a major political party, now in opposition, who does nothing but sit in the seat he is elected to – and continues to be elected to – but should he attract any attention from the media, and therefore the world, which in the realm of political life is more likely than not – the state of his front garden alone – and let’s leave out, for the moment, his proclivities, history, and immediate future – would be enough to send worrying waves to his party, the media, and constituents. Robert seems to be the only one, of the three of them, who understands this.

“Later this morning, Eastern Standard Time, the state opposition will gather for a party meeting behind closed doors to try to wheedle three backbenchers, Thomas Undershaft, Marion Heath, and Ewan Gulliver, into supporting the contentious vote on euthanasia,” the car radio says.

“Ewan! You’ve made the news! Wow. Now you will have to do something about the front garden.”

“Whatever for?”

“It’s the first thing the paparazzi will photograph and the first story the journos will write about. Next thing you know the producers of “Celebrity Makeover” will be banging on our door to bring our front garden into the 21st century. And once the journos dig, Ewan … well, you know.”

The radio continues its morning roundup of news, weather, and not-so-current affairs. Father and son sit in silence in the heavy traffic. Ewan’s knuckles begin to turn white, he indicates, pulls over, and stops the car.

“Ewan! You can’t park here. It’s a bus lane.”

Ewan replies by covering his son’s hand with his own.

Robert quickly pulls his hand away. “If you get picked up by the traffic police they’ll start asking questions and next thing you know your face will be on the front page of some gutter tabloid, and you know what they…

“Robert,” interrupts Ewan, “we have to talk.”

“No, we don’t and there’s a bus coming.”

“Baby.”

“Don’t call me that and that bus is not a figment of my imagination. Ewan!”

Ewan checks his rear-view mirrors and pulls out into the traffic again. It is slow.

The Volvo eventually pulls into the curb outside the high school with a yard empty of children. The men sit: Robert waiting for, but not wanting, Ewan to say something and worried about why he himself is so confused about this.

“Sorry about the traffic,” says Ewan.

“Not your fault.”

“You remember the principal’s name? Mr Steen?”

“I know. It’s tragic.”

Ewan has more important things to say. “… Robert,” begins Ewan in a different, soft, but alarming voice that causes Robert to angrily interrupt.

“Ewan! Stop! We are going to be like a normal, well, normal-ish, family and tonight I’ll tell you about my day and Mum will tell us about Veronica’s day, and you’ll tell us about your day; and while we’re on the subject of your day, do what you have to, to stay out of the media’s sites. And you know perfectly well why.”

As he gets out of the car Ewan says irritably, “Oh, so you want me to blend in, do you? Don’t stand out, is that it?”

“Exactly!” Robert prepares to slam the door.

But in a swift move Ewan, held by his seatbelt, leans low on the passenger seat where he can feel the still, but fading, warmth of Robert’s body and holds the door open, looks up at his son and says pleadingly, “But I don’t understand, Baby, why you are so afraid of what you did. I didn’t mind; don’t mind.”

“I was underage,” says Robert harshly but in a whisper, foolishly, as there was no-one around, “I wasn’t responsible!”

“And you’re still not,” says Ewan with a calm inevitability that renders his son shocked and speechless. Robert abruptly turns, leaving the door open and walks rapidly away and into the deserted playground. He hears the door close and the Volvo pull away but doesn’t turn around. He stands in a sea of black asphalt. He knows he’s late, but since late is late, later is still just late. He might only be fifteen but he’s also a man; he thinks of himself as one, and one that feels responsibility even if the law won’t let him. But here he is; a man in a playground. Its implications belie its flatness. Another school. Let’s hope this one is a little more … accommodating.

2

Pretty Straight Back

Familiar noises and the habiliments of school architecture, direct him into a building and a short corridor turns him down a longer one. He can see up ahead a teacher’s aid in a lab coat mopping the floor next to a free-standing, yellow, warning sign, and heads for him to ask directions. But as he approaches he becomes gradually aware that this man has the potential to be incredibly attractive; not in a conventional sense he thinks, but craggy, well built, and to Robert’s well developed sexual senses, luscious. Dearie me! Look at that! Robert can’t help a sensuous smile begin to teeter on his lips as he excitingly anticipates gazing into this man’s eyes; but just as the smile is involuntary so is the rest of his face and as the man hears Robert’s approaching steps, he looks up and locks eyes on the lad. Robert chucks him a lascivious wink. The man’s shocked reaction has its altering affect and Robert lets his momentum propel him past without being able to utter a word, much to his annoyance, but he can’t help looking back. Be still my beating heart! What is it about those deep creases, like parentheses around a sensual mouth? The man is staring after him, standing next to the yellow sign: caution.

It’s as if another Robert, the man, vies for space in his body and mind of Robert, the boy. He looks like a man, thinks like a man, his penis certainly behaves like a man, but although the chemical cocktail that unleashed the man in him was spilt way too soon there are still boyish elements lurking beneath his adult exterior that bubble up at times sending his mind racing around a traffic clover trying to find the nearest exit to rationality and a calm breathing pattern. Robert has adapted to these moments of libidinal confusion by taking, as he likes to call it, my rational pill: the sensical, almost female, attribute of  attending to the stimuli of reality around him at this present moment: the smell of a school corridor, finding the Principal, being a school boy.

He finds the Principal’s office where he notes the man’s name on the door as C. E Steen: Principal. He knocks and enters and sees the man rise from his desk. He is grossly fat and, when he speaks, flummoxed by a seemingly random stammer and a casual link between tongue and intellect. His desk is messy. A good sign, thinks Robert. A laptop, stacks of papers, a small secretaire of ancient polished wood, and a small photo frame. He’d love to see what it holds. 

“Ah, yes. Am I expecting you?” the man says with a frown.

“Yes, I think so. I’m the new student transferred from Sanderson High. Robert Gulliver.”

“Oh! Is that so? You’re late! And I was expecting someone a little, well, you know, younger, and not so w-well d-dressed. Your file says you’re fifteen, but” Robert’s slightly annoyed look has its effect, “ well, you know what b-boys can be like these days. Yes. Well, now. You’ve got a little reputation stuck to your b-boots, my lad. But Elliot, that’s Will Elliot, the Councillor – old friend of mine from w-way back, says you’re a bold lad, or some such thing. Ah, yes, my lad. Yes. Yes. E-expecting you. Yes, G-gulliver. R-robert. Yes. Robert, I think. Come in. Sit down. Here’s a chair. I’m the boss around here,” and he laughs rather sillily.

“Pleased to meet you sir.”

“Now, no need, no need, you know, around here to be so, well, formal. You can call me Mr Steen or P-principal. Everyone d-does. Someone called me ‘Prince’ once and I quite liked it. Now, there’s a form somewhere around here. Somewhere. For you to fill-in, or is it fill-out? Silly language at t-times,” and he chuckles to himself.

“I filled in all the necessary forms online. I’m sure we don’t have to do them again,” says Robert, trying to help.

“Yes. Yes. Certainly. Of course. Of course. The office staff will deal with that, that you know, computer stuff. So. W-what can I do for you then?”

“What I don’t have is the weekly schedule and …..”

“Yes, of course! Of course. That’s here too, somewhere. Somewhere. Oh yes! Here it is! Glory be! Here’s the whole d-damn thing: a folder with your name on it. Robert Gulliver. This must be yours,” and he hands Robert a full manila folder. “W-what else do you need to know?”

“I was hoping you could show me to my first class. but Sir, Mr Steen, you need to keep this file, I think.” He hands it back.

“Ah, yes. Of course. But now, what? Oh, yes, come with me,” and the Principal rises with difficulty from his seat and leads Robert out into the corridor, talking all the time. “Your home teacher is Mr Luff. G-good bloke. Very knowledgeable about literature and all that. English, I think, is first up this morning,” and on and on about Mr Luff and his string of qualities until they get to a closed door. He knocks and enters. The entire class shuffles to its feet, but the Principle waves them down. “Thank you, people, thank you. Good morning, Good morning, Adrian.” Everyone sits. Robert follows but his view of the room is almost completely restricted by the bulk of Mr Steen. “This is the new chap I told you about, Adrian. Robert Gulliver,” and as Mr Steen steps aside a breathless “Oh shit” escapes Robert’s lips. Mr Luff is the craggy-handsome teacher’s aid minus his lab coat.

There is a pause, like a stop-frame, as Adrian Luff takes in Robert Gulliver, especially his clothes as does the whole class. “You? Mr Gulliver? We’ve been expected you,” says Adrian Luff with a touch of irony in his voice.

“Good morning, sir,” and he looks around the room. It is as expected: students in various states of hormone-induced dishevelment all around fifteen loll on their chairs, or against, or over, their single and double desks, as if to belie the furniture’s shape. Three rough-pretty boys up the back attract his attention as they lean into each other like conspirators, like the trio from Macbeth. One of them, a lanky lad stares at him and mouths a word with derision: an unmistakable ‘Poofta’. Ah, yes. Here we go again, thinks Robert but his attention is taken by a very pretty girl who, of all of them, is sitting up straight.

“Not so formal here, Mr Gulliver. Mr Luff is all that is needed.”

“Fine. Where would you like me to sit?”

“Why not over there, third row back.”

“Ah, a window seat. Thank you,” and Robert walks to his seat, takes off his jacket and hangs it neatly on the back of his chair. All eyes are locked on him as he sits.

“We’re talking this morning about A Passage to India. Have you read it?”

“It’s on the syllabus.”

“Yes, but have you read it,” says Adrian Luff in a tone that suggests that everybody should, but nobody has. There’s a few chuckles of acknowledgement.

“Yes, I have. Twice,” and a few groans punctuate the dying laughter.

“Ah, then you might like to enlighten us on your theories of what happened in the Malabar Caves.”

“I think I’d prefer to sit this one out, Mr Luff, if you don’t mind. It’s my first day. I’ll just gauge the lie of the land, if you know what I mean. But thanks for the offer.”

“Oh, come now, Mr Gulliver. You must know I’ve read your file.”

Oh, fucken hell. So much for starting with a new slate when the one he’s given is already scratched and bloodied. He can feel the look of mischief from Adrian Luff; a little pay back probably for Robert’s audacious wink in the corridor.

“So, come on, Mr Gulliver. Enlighten us with your opinion,” and his soft-looking lips form a little challenging smirk.

I know what I’d like to do to those lips of yours. Stick my tongue through them and press them hard against mine as I run my hand up and under your shirt and then down behind your belt. Robert smiles and says “Do you mind if I stand?”

“Not at all Mr Gulliver. Be our guest.” And it is something about that reply, a little too smug, a little too all-inclusive – us against you, too condescending and challenging with a hope of failure no doubt, that Robert doesn’t just stand but also grabs and dons his coat as he walks to the front of the class – into Adrian Luff’s territory – turns, and boldly and unflinchingly begins – but first he tugs on his cuffs and buttons his jacket.

“Miss Adela Quested, rather plain, has led a slow and very ordinary English life, but despite very little happening in it she has found herself rushing past, at an alarming rate, her marriageable age. No female then would ever contemplate being left on the shelf. However, she is now engaged, probably hurriedly so, to be married, but to a rather pompous and dull prick who has been all this time in India while she has been, all this time, on the other side of the world, being plain and un-noticed.” And then staring at Lanky Lad up the back says, “She’s a virgin, wouldn’t you say?”

The dumb lad falls for the trap and says rather cockily, “Yeah, but I reckon she’d like a bit of the old rumpy-pumpy,” and his two off-siders punch each other and giggle like twits. “Because, you know, she gets all moist and gagging-for-it just lookin’ at all those Karma Sutra statues humpin’ each other, like all over the place.” And the twits giggle some more.

“Ah, so you’ve seen the movie,” says Robert egging the boy on.

“Yeah, I have. Twice!” and the class laughs with him as his chest puffs up like a gobbler.

“But you haven’t read the book, laddy!” The laughter dies. “Because if you had you would have known that scene is not in the book. It’s a little invention from Mr Lean, the director, just to make it a little easier for people who aren’t comfortable just with words on a page, or even pictures on a screen, but need a little extra to help them understand what’s going on.” Lanky Lad sinks a little in his chair and fixes Robert with a hateful stare, although Robert can see that the lad isn ‘t quite sure why he feels put down. Robert’s eyes move from Lanky Lad’s to Pretty Straight Back. She’s smiling at him. “So,” Robert continues, “Miss Quested is a virgin, sexually repressed and about to marry a bore who is also sexually repressed. A disaster in the making. Missionary Position 101 with the lights off. But then she spots the good man, Dr Aziz, with his swarthy good looks,” Robert prances before his audience letting his own attractiveness work for him, “a handsome, exotic, and friendly man,” – he tosses a smiling “Hi!” to Pretty Straight Back – “and poor Adela is hooked. It’s Dr Aziz she wants, although wanting a man isn’t something she would ever contemplate; more like, wanting him to do something to her. So, in the cave, the dark and eerie cave, just the place for a randy man to take advantage of an inexperienced but willing virgin” – and Robert rubs his nipples – “Mmmmm. But Dr Aziz is not with her: he’s somewhere else in the labyrinth with the other tourists. She’s alone in the gloom, exotic, and sensual place with nothing but her imagination” and his hands wander again. “So, what does she do? She lets her imagination go wide to a point where she can’t help herself. She masturbates” – he demonstrates, “Breaks her hymen, gets blood on her hands, -Ah! – panics, runs from the cave, and stumbles into a convenient bramble bush. Now! The real question here – and much more interesting – is not what happened in the cave – I just told you what happened, end of mystery – but, did she accidentally stumble into the bramble bush or did she do that deliberately to cover up her vaginal blood; blood with more blood? Right! I want 500 words from each and every one of you on your opinion on the bramble bush equation, on my desk by 3.45 this afternoon. Thank you for your attention.” Pretty Straight Back leads the mediocre applause. He smiles back at her as he walks back to his seat and, removing his jacket, replaces it on the back of his chair and sits. Adrian Luff takes an unsatisfactory amount of time to get the class back and under his control so he can proceed with the lesson he has planned.

Eventually, a harsh sound of an electric bell, left over from when Brutus was a boy, pierces the air and as the class room erupts with eager but underdeveloped bodies scrambling to get out of here, Robert gathers his things and finds he is the last to leave.

“I’d like a word with you, Mr Gulliver,” says Adrian Luff.

“Certainly, Mr Luff,” says Robert as he alters his momentum and leans against the desk immediately in front of Mr Luff who sits watching Robert’s every move.

“Are you aware of what is in the report from your previous school?” asks the older man.

“No,” says Robert, “but I’d like to be.” And I think there’s a few other things I’d like to be aware of at this very moment, Luffy.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

“You mean, I’m stuck forever with my crumpled past?”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Oh! So you have a crumpled past too, do you Mr Luff?”

Mr Luff chooses to ignore the question; so instead he says, “My job is to make sure you fit in well to this school and keep – incidents – from happening that we’d rather not happen.”

“And how do you suppose to do that?” asks Robert cheekily.

“By understanding a little bit of what’s going on in that head of yours.”

Robert can’t help a smirk distorting his lips, “Oh, Mr Luff, even if you did know what was going on in this head of mine, you may not understand it” which I would greatly regret as I run my hand up your naked body to a nipple and squeeze it ever-so gently while I grab your erect penis in my fist and guide it, expertly, inevitably, into my waiting mouth “Sorry, did you say something?” asks Robert snapping out of his little reverie.

“No.”

“Oh,” and then coquettishly “would you like to say something?”

“Mr Gulliver,” begins Mr Luff in a slightly exasperated voice but he is prevented from continuing by a knock on the door.

“Yes?” calls out Mr Luff.

Oh look! It’s Pretty Straight Back. “Excuse me, Mr Luff, but as Mr Gulliver has a free-period this session, as I do, I thought I’d take the opportunity to show him around.”

“A very good idea, Ms Lately, as it seems he needs a bit of looking after.”

“Oh, Mr Luff,” says Robert, “why don’t we forget about our crumbly pasts and start afresh?”

Again, Mr Luff ignores the question. “I’ll see you back here for the last session de-brief.”

“Oo! A de-brief,” says Robert as he collects his bag, “I look forward to that,” and he pushes himself off the desk and heads to the waiting Ms Pretty Straight Back, sorry, Ms Lately; but then he stops, turns back to Mr Luff, walks over to the man still sitting in his chair, stands a little too close signifying an intimacy that apparently the older man does not object to – Mmm – and says conspiratorially, “What where you doing dressed as a teacher’s aid mopping a corridor earlier this morning?”

“It was a lab coat. I also teach Junior Chemistry. I broke a beaker. I mopped rather than swept to make sure I got every shard of glass.”

The men stare at each other, one looking up, one smiling down and then “Very sensible,” says Robert who then turns and continues towards Ms Lately waiting at the door.

A few steps from the recently closed door Ms Lately says, “Are you always that arrogant on day one?”

Robert looks at her with some surprise as her question was, well, surprising, and then quizzically as if her question consolidates the basis of their relationship and so he consolidates it even more by saying, “Yes. And are you always so abrupt on first meetings?”

“Yes.”

“We are going to get along just fine.”

“Actually, I’m not usually that abrupt…”

“So, you lied?”

“No. There’s something about you that elicits – honesty.”

“Something, what exactly?”

“Something in your face.”

“What about my face?”

“Well, apart from it being incredibly handsome …”

“I know.”

“… really!” with a sigh, “it’s also incredibly open.”

“And it gets me into a lot of trouble.”

“Being open?”

“No, the other bit.”

Ms Lately ignores that. “A virgin doesn’t necessarily bleed when she masturbates.”

“She does if her hymen breaks.”

“Not necessarily. I didn’t.”

“Oh. It’s a good story though, don’t you think?”

“What other theories do you have about Ms Quested?”

“I don’t want to talk about Ms Quested.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Adrian Luff.”

“Do you fancy him?”

“Of, course!”

“He’s off limits, I’m afraid.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.”

“I may not know what’s in that report about you, but I can sure as hell guess. You really …..”

“Ah!” gasps Robert, “I haven’t yet asked your name.”

“I wonder why that would be?”

“And you haven’t told me.”

“It’s Penny.”

“Ah, Penelope.”

“No, Penny.”

“Why not Penelope?”

“It’s so old fashioned.”

“But with a noble pedigree.”

“And you’re now going to tell me all about it.”

“She was the wife of Odysseus, better known as Ulysses, who stayed loyal to him for more than twenty years while he was away fighting in the Trojan wars.”

“Was she dull?”

“No, she was very beautiful and had over 180 suitors, but she shunned them all, aching for the day when Ulysses would return to her. And he did. She is known for her connubial fidelity.”

“Why do you know so much stuff?”

“I have an uncanny ability to remember everything I see, touch, smell, hear, and taste.”

“And make-up.”

“You have a healthy skepticism. I like that. We’re going to be very close. Anyway, I’m calling you Penelope.”

“Must you?”

“It’s your name, just like my name is Robert. Robert.”

“Robert. Not Bobby?”

He looks at her as if she just farted. “Robert.”

“Robert.”

“Penelope. Penelope Lately. Nice. And where does the family Lately come from?”

“It’s the English version….”

Anglicised is the word you need, if it’s the adjective you want.” Robert can be incredibly annoying.

“It’s the Anglicised version of some Eastern European name with too many zeds and not enough vowels.”

“You mean like Latzkowzkizitzky?”

“Something like that.”

“So, Penelope Lately, I think you were about to tell me all you know about the delectable Adrian Luff.”

“OK. Ermm … he’s a teacher.” 

3

Rough Pretty Boys

Penelope Lately is tiny with a luscious crop of very bark brown hair, almost black but not quite. Her small stature belies her intellect and sense of humour. It’s as if, when aged seven, all her growing energy was transferred to her brain leaving her frame stationary. 

Robert said one morning, “You have gorgeous hair.”

“Would you like to touch it?”

“Er … No!” said Robert a little taken aback. “Why would I want to touch it?”

“Well, I just thought, since you liked it, you might want to, you know, touch it.”

“No. I just like looking at it.”

“Oh.” Penelope doesn’t quite know why but she’s a little disappointed.

“The Mona Lisa in the Lourve in Paris is covered by a sheet of glass so when you look at it all you can see is the reflection of the boards of people staring at it.”

“And why did you tell me that?”

“Nobody wants to touch it.”

“Well, you couldn’t touch it, even if you wanted to.”

“That’s right.”

” … you’re weird.”

During that first meeting of Penelope and Robert not a lot of ‘showing-around’ went on, which Robert didn’t mind as school-yard geography is very much the same the world over: building, asphalt, building, asphalt, boutique bushes, demountable, worn grass, asphalt, building. But it did set a precedent and all their subsequent free time between classes and other annoying educational commitments were spent together. Robert, basically self-educated, simply is marking time until he comes of age when his real life, he believes, will begin. Robert makes no other friends; he adopts a friendly but sarcastic, slightly belittling tone to all others which they can’t actually recognise as such but know it isn’t welcoming. His feelings for Penelope quickly grow close to love, brotherly love that is, and his feelings for Adrian Luff stay frustratingly close to lust-from-afar; not a feeling Robert is comfortable with. He usually gets what he wants.

“Look at them!” says Robert after a short pause that ended a satisfying but exhausted discussion about the modern uselessness of royalty. “Horsing around like children.” The rough-pretty boys are tagging each other; their shirttails blowin’ in the wind.

“They are children,” says Penelope chewing on her apple core.

Lanky Lad and his two accomplices are energetically teasing each other some metres away, chasing and grabbing each other for no apparent purpose or gain.

“Who are they again?”

“Don’t you know their names?”

“I only remember the names of people who interest me.”

“The tall skinny one is Lenny, Leonard Averset. His family owns a delivery business. Gio Chang is from Korean parents, they have two restaurants in the inner East. He was born here not long after his parents arrived from Korea and they chose what they thought was an English name for their new little boy, Giovanni. He’s the brightest of the three; and the other one is Tommy Masood, Lebanese I think. Don’t know about his family.”

“Look at him trying to get his hands under their shirts, flesh on flesh.”

“Play isn’t all about homo-eroticism, Robert.”

“Wanna bet?”

“You’ve got your hand on my knee.”

“I’ve always got my hand on your knee, your hand, your arm, your neck. That’s got nothing to do with eroticism.”

“What is actually erotic for you, Robert? Humour me.”

“Oh, a mustache, hairy chest, with a truck outside.”

“Does it ever worry you that your sexual fantasies are such a cliché?”

“Constantly.”

“Mr Luff is none of those things.”

“Ah, but Mr Luff has the flavour of all of those things? He’s in a category all of his own.

“So why don’t you want to move your hand further up my leg?”

“I told you. It’s got nothing to do with eroticism.”

“What does it have to do with?”

“Love and affection.”

“Aah, you’re sweet.”

“I know. But, look at them. He’s got his arms around his waist, under his shirt and his crotch smack up against his arse. And loving it.”

“Leave them alone. I’m more interested about why you don’t want to move your hand up my leg.”

“You know perfectly well why.”

“You could still try.”

“Why?”

“Because I want you to.”

“No, you don’t. What you want is a boyfriend.”

“I’ve got a boy, friend.”

“A fuck-buddy then.”

“I’ve tried that. It didn’t work out.”

“No no. What you need is a straight me.”

“And where am I going to find one of those?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll find you one.”

“So, if I have you and a straight-you, how would you feel about that?”

“Fine. You’d have me for 90% of the time and him when you feel horny.”

“And where did you get that statistic from?”

“The point is, he’s there when you need him.”

“And what if he falls in love with me and wants to marry me?”

“And what if you get hit with a plummeting piece of burning space junk on the way to Social Science? Come on!”

“Are you saying that the chance of me …..!?”

“Relax! You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t exactly. Take your hand off my knee.”

He removes his hand. “My point is, seriously,” says Robert pulling her chin around to look at him to prove he is serious, “you are gorgeous, funny, caring, self-ware, and intelligent but finding a bloke, a straight bloke, to match you is not going to be easy; not if those three are anything to go by. But I promise you, Ms Penelope Lately, I will find him. Where ever he is.”

“…you can put your hand back on my knee, if you like.”

Not a Virgin by Nuril Basri

Translated by John H. McGlynn

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Indonesian writer, Nuril Basri

Nuril Basri has worked in many itinerant jobs including as a waiter on cruise ships. However, writing is his passion. He has several published works in Indonesia and Malaysia. This translation from the Lontar Foundation is his first in English.

 

This  book is surprising. It deals with masculinity, and sexuality – not subjects I expected to read in a book written by a Muslim –  set in the sub-culture of modern male youth on the fringe, literally and figuratively, of Jakarta, the sprawling capital of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. Machete-wielding vigilantes, Islamic religious teachers, transgender hairdressers, rapists, drug dealers, indifferent parents, gay clubs, and drag queens populate this story of religion, youth culture, gender identity, and sexuality.

The tone is light-hearted, sometimes comic, sometimes dramatic and written in the first person as Ricky, a displaced teenager tries to find an identity and family to call his own. He stumbles into the dark playful culture of the cross-dressing beauty salon community who speak their own language: gayspeak, Queen’s Speech, or Salonese as a way to isolate themselves from the mainstream which only harbours for them ridicule, ostracisation, and violence.

It feels as if Basri, a young man himself, is aiming his tale squarely at young cisgender people just like Ricky, while at the same time normalising the transgender characters who, like everybody else, are searching for love, a room over their heads, acceptance, work, and freedom.

I’d never thought our relationship would reach this stage, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. Paris was keeping me, after all, wasn’t he? He bought me clothes, treated me to meals, and gave me pocket money regularly. And he had just bought me a very expensive pair of shoes. He had the right to touch me. Though I silently objected, I did realise, deep in my heart at least, that this day would come. I just didn’t know that today would be that day.

The climax of this scene is comic but the intent is clear: the normalisation of sexual difference. In fact, it’s the comic nature of this scene that normalises such behaviour.

To give you a taste of Basri’s style you can read this scene (Chapter 21 of Not A Virgin) as published online in Queer Southeast Asia: a literary journal of transgressive art Vol. 1. no. 1, October 2016 here.

The Lontar Foundation promotes Indonesian literature and culture through the translation of Indonesian literary works. It was established in 1987 and is still the only organisation that promotes Indonesian culture through literary translations.

You can buy the book directly from Lontar here.

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

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Vita Sackville-West (1892 -1962) British poet, novelist, gardener, free spirit. “I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.”

Book’s narrators – who are they? where are they? why are they telling me this? why do they care? – always interests me. It can often be a character in the story; it can sometimes be the protagonist themselves; but it is usually some nameless god-like know-all. There are many ways to tell a story so why did the writer pick this particular way to tell it? This interest makes the first page of a novel so informative. Sackville-West makes it very clear in the opening of The Edwardians that it is no-one but her, the writer,  who is telling me this story. This is rare.  She begins:

Among the many problems which beset the novelist, not the least weighty is the choice of the moment at which to begin his novel.

And ends the first paragraph with:

The arbitrariness of choice has already been made sufficiently evident, and no further justification is necessary to explain why we irrupt into the life of our hero (for so, I suppose, he must be called) at the age of nineteen, and meet him upon the roof a little after midday on Sunday, July the 23rd, nineteen hundred and five.

As you can ‘hear’ by the language it is written English from another time, but not so far away. Sackville-West had The Edwardians published in 1930, less than a hundred years ago.

The story is set at Chevron, a country house of the aristocracy lorded over by the widowed Dowager Duchess of Chevron but owned by her son, Sebastian, the current Duke, but who ‘hasn’t yet attained his majority’, hence his mother’s stewardship until he comes of age. Summer weekends at Chevron are weekends as they always have been: house parties, where the landed rich, and some hangers-on who may not be wealthy but have other necessary attributes, lavishly dine, drink, play bridge, and have affairs. Sebastian, soon to be initiated into a sex life by his mother’s best friend, Lady Roehampton, and his sister Viola, overlooked but who surprises everyone, try to follow their hearts and their belief in the inevitable; but tradition is strong and exerts itself the most on dutiful sons soon to be heirs of age and pensive daughters branded for an appropriate marriage. However, an interesting ‘adventurer and sailor’, Leonard Anquetil, not of anyone’s set, but one who went to Siberia in search of mammoths and who had lived in a hut near the South Pole was deemed amusing enough to be invited to the Chevron’s house party. His intrusion ultimately leads the two children to see their own paths, and possible destinies, independent of their social standing. Just what they needed .

Dialogue has always been an efficient painter of character, and Sackville-West is a master of  it but with children and maids hovering around the Duchess as she dresses for dinner it’s a monologue that paints her character so precisely:

Now, Button, haven’t you nearly finished? Don’t drag my hair like that, woman. Give me the tail comb. Don’t you see, it wants more fullness at the side. Really, Button, I thought you were supposed to be an expert hair-dresser. You may think yourself lucky, Sebastian, that you were born a boy. This eternal hair, these eternal clothes! They wear a woman out before her time. Oh there you are  Miss Wace. This plan is all wrong. You must alter it. Do it here, as quick as you can. Sebastian will help you. And Viola. Come in, Viola; don’t look so scared, child. I can’t bear people who look scared. No, I don’t want you now, Button; you get on my nerves. I will call you when I want you. Get my dress ready. Children, help Miss Wace – yes you too Viola; it’s high time you took a little trouble to help your poor mother – and do, all three of you, try to show a little intelligence.

This book was incredibly successful in 1930 at the beginning of the depression. The reading public, when austerity was beginning to bite, craved this story of extravagance, selfishness, and a doomed social order. It is set in 1905 at the beginning of the WW1 when an earlier social order was under threat. It was Vita Sackville-West who saw in the young an understanding of the transition that both her readers and characters were going through, but the older generation could not see it; they saw nothing but what had never changed and so could not believe that it ever would. The book was so successful that she and her husband, the diarist and diplomat, Harold Nicholson, bought Sissinghurst, an estate that resembled a pile of rocks at the time, for just over twelve thousand pounds and turned it into the most famous garden estate in the land, and certainly Kent.

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Sissinghurst Castle. Her later home and famous garden

Here, her description of one particular Edwardian set:

Their solidarity was terrific. They had a way of speaking of one another which reduced everybody else to a mere petitioner on the doorstep. Too well-bred to be arrogant, too uninspired to sneer, they were simply so well convinced of their unassailability that the conviction required no voicing, but betrayed itself quietly in glances, in topics, in the set of shoulders, the folding of hands, and in the serene assumption of certain standards and particular values as common to all. They moved all together, a large square block in the heart of English society, massive, majestic, and dull.

You have to re-read some of her sentences just for the joy of them; she criticises everyone but with wit, style, and a masterful use of biting words. The scenes in her story are always there for more than one reason. Like the boisterous Christmas party for the tenant’s children presided over by Sebastian, his sister Viola, and Sebastian’s guest, Teresa, Mrs Spedding, the doctor’s wife. The innocent parlour games they play with the children are full of adult manipulation and intrigue: Sebastian, against his better judgement, to ensnare, tantalise, and seduce the innocent and fragile Teresa; she in knots of fear and delight at his attention; and Viola who sees and understands everything, but cannot save her, nor stop him.

Sackville-West was a fascinating woman. A peer’s daughter married to a knight of the realm, Vita was a pillar of the Establishment but, like her husband, had affairs with her own sex; but she bore him two children, and became a best-selling author, poet and gardener. Eleven years after her death her son Nigel Nicholson had a book published about his parent’s relationship under the title of Portrait of a Marriage. In it he chronicled his mother’s tempestuous sexual relationship with the author and socialite, Violet Keppel (1894 – 1972). Vita also, famously, had an affair with Virginia Woolf who used her as inspiration for her novel Orlando,: the adventures of a man who lives for three centuries but who changes, mid-life, into a woman.

In The Edwardians, apart from the extravagant world of ‘above stairs’ – emeralds, gowns, white-tie, champagne, Canard à l’orange, port, and gossip; there is also the greyer, but equally fascinating, world of ‘below stairs’ – hatpins, aprons, bracers, beer, shepherd’s pie, sherry, and gossip. Such stories in such settings have recently become popular again: Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park, set in 1930, and the many series of ITV’s Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015), set a little earlier, but both written by Julian Fellowes and both sharing cast members. If you liked Downton Abbey you’ll find The Edwardians equally as entertaining but with a sting in its tail.

And what better climactic scene to highlight all that Sebastian loathes about his prisoned live than a coronation: that of George V, in 1910. The ending comes a little quickly but it’s unexpectedness is novelistic and provides an out for poor privileged Sebastian (and for independent Viola). A great read!

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Vita Sackville-West 1955 – straight from the garden

You can find the ebook of The Edwardians here.

Two short stories, A Tale of Mr Peter Brown and Chelsea Justice in the one volume, plus some poetry can be found for free here from Gutenberg Press.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

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Irish Writer, Anne Enright. The Forgotten Waltz was the first book after her Booker prize: it doesn’t disappoint, although she goes on a  bit; but, I suppose you can do whatever you like after a Booker win.

Like The Gathering (2007), Enright establishes her story, this story, as having happened in the past but tells it in the present; or at least that seems to be the case as I finish page 1. I have a thing about page 1.

It is some years ago now. The house is new and this is my sister’s housewarming party …

Many readers I know have an aversion to narratives in the present tense but it gives the impression that the writer is telling you right now about a past event, but by telling it as if it is happening now gives the narrative the immediacy of gossip – and we all like gossip. It gives the reader a sense of it not having been written for you but of it being told to you, and only you, at this moment; even if the prose slips into the past at times.

They have mini-marshmallows on top. She goes to pop one in her mouth, then pulls back in surprise. 

‘Ooh, pink!’ she says.

I don’t know what I was waiting for. 

Not “I didn’t know what I was waiting for” (both verbs in the past) nor “I don’t know what I am waiting for” (both verbs in the present) but the first (do) in the present and the second (was) in the past.

It feels like there are two narratives going on here: the story itself (in the past) and the telling of it (in the present). But this is what I think we all do when we tell someone now about something that happened then, and by using this double-tense Enright is being conversational, conspiratorial, and so making us feel comfortable and special: a real friend. Readers love this.

I don’t think Enright is conscious of this nor does she sit down meticulously studying the verbs and deciding which tense they should be to get the effect she is after. My mentioning it is, however, a serious attempt to describe how a writer gets this conspiratorial, gossipy, tone into their writing. In order to get this particular tone the writer needn’t manipulate it- in fact, shouldn’t manipulate it –  but needs to be thinking in this particular tone so the tone in the head becomes the tone on the page.

Or you may think I’m being a wanker and why don’t I get on with it and just read the bloody thing? OK, I will.

On page one, line one, we are given the nut of it.

I met him in my sister’s garden in Enniskerry.

This is the first person account of a woman, Gina Moynihan, and her sexual obsession for a man, Sean Vallely, who like her, is married to someone else.

Enright writes Gina’s monologue as if she’s explaining, justifying at a crackling pace, to a … a … psychologist. She’s keen, this Gina, to tell us everything, but also to leave us guessing:

We managed to linger after everyone had gone, and the details of what corner we found and what we did; how we managed it, and who put what where, are nobody’s business but our own. 

and, of course, by NOT telling us the details our minds race frantically with all sorts of images of ‘doing it’ and ‘putting what where’ and in ‘whose corner’ and ‘managing it where?’ that we’re all in a lather anyway.

Her prose has a momentum that belies the action. There is action everywhere whereby reading it makes you feel exhausted; there’s a breathless tone to the reading, like a theatrical monologue some aspiring, or reviving, actor does of The Gospel According to Matthew. The Gospel According to Gina; where a simple static description is busy with verbs:

Lines of black posts marched down to the shoreline, small and smaller, overtaken, each in their turn by the shifting sand.” 

There’s ‘marching’ and ‘overtaking’ and ‘shifting’; so much happening, so many doing words, but it’s just the view of a bloody empty beach! The empty beach seems as busy as the sex in the corner.

Gina is self-possessed, or maybe just blind, but she has no thought that just as she has a keen sense of perspicacity other people might have a similar talent. She can see through everyone but she is certain no one can see through her. She thinks her secret is safe. This is the tension.

She’s not very likeable – in fact, I’d be very wary of having her at my lunch table, but you’re flattered that she’s confiding in you so much of what she’s thinking and feeling; it’s all so intimate, that you would have to admit your friendship with her even if only to bolster your own standing. Like admitting to a friendship with a Weinstein simply because he’s famous and he talked to you once.

There was a time when “Prefaces” or “Introductions” were mis-understood and not seen as part of the story – we couldn’t wait to get to Chapter 1, for the story to begin – which I think now has, thank god, changed, but Enright starts the book with a “Preface” that you MUST read as it pre-empts the story: Sean’s little troubled girl, Evie, sees Gina and he kissing and it is seen as the “first official occasion” of their love. Enright has used this devise – a child witnessing something very ‘adult’ – before, in The Gathering, and admits in an interview that after writing this preface scene says to herself,* “Oh God! I’ve done it again.”  But the pivotal scene is the pivotal scene and once it’s there, it must remain.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the book is about an affair; it’s not the affair, nor even its aftermath that interests Enright, what interests her is how Gina sees it, manipulates it, how a woman sees herself, loses herself, against a background of an Ireland where such a thing, not so long ago, would’ve been the end of her; the end of everything for her. It’s hard to think of the Ireland then, and the Ireland now with it’s same-sex marriage legislation, its abortion referendum (May 25, 2018), and it’s out, gay, Prime Minister of Indian parentage.

The affair is exciting, propelling, and with a momentum all of its own, because it isn’t, has nothing to do with, the domestic. The two adulterers – such a loaded term – know little about each other, hardly speak:

“All this. Have you done it before?”

“Well, you know,” he said.

Their affair progresses on “in its Friday pace,” and it’s this that Gina loves. It’s just about fucking every Friday. The ‘falling in love’ bit could ruin it all! But they do; or, at least. she does. The ‘wife’, Sean’s wife, Aileen, isn’t Gina’s nemesis, as one would expect, that role falls to Evie, Sean’s little ‘mistake’ of daughter. She’s enigmatic, chubby, but plain, and not at all healthy, but it’s the daughter that, if any atonement is to be got for Gina and her wild imagination – and all of it could just be that – then it will come via Evie; it’s Evie she also needs to woo.

This is the third Enright I’ve read in a row: an Enright-fest. She has rocketed to the top, well, near the top, of my favourite-writer list: Colm Tóibín still holds my #1 place although Enright, John Boyne, Patrick Gale, and Sebastian Barry are barking at his heels. She says she doesn’t know what she will write next; she’ll find out, I’m sure, and do it. Soon, I hope.

You can purchase the book, in various formats, here.

* The presenter and interviewer are a little boring, fast forward through them to get to the good bits: Enright, herself.