‘You will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra to her youngest daughter, Lata.
Seth doesn’t waste time, which is well to remember as you turn from page 1276 to page 1277 with several hundred to go.
It is a novel of rich history, set in the years 1949 to 1951 in the fictional city of Brahmpur on the banks of the Ganges, only a few years after the separation of the subcontinent into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh): Hindus from Muslims. It has been reported that 2 million Muslims were killed in the violence that resulted from partition. There is little evidence of the bloodshed; Muslim and Hindu families feature prominently in the story; they mix socially and even politically but their social and political differences are only as severe as those of the other stratas of society: caste, employment, race, and education.
The three Hindu families: the Mehras, Chatterjis, and Kapoors are all connected by marriage. The Muslim family, the Khans, are linked to the other families through politics, friendship, and wealth.
Through the course of the story three suitors emerge, Kabir Durrani, a fellow student, whom Lata Mehra, the potential bride, befriends over their love of literature; Amit Chatterji, a poet and the brother of Lata’s sister-in-law, and Haresh Khanna, an ambitious and enterprising young man and the one favoured by Mrs Rupa Mehra as the most suitable boy. However, Kadir, whom Lata really loves, is Muslim.
There is also a subplot – the main among many – of Maan Kapoor, the son of the respected state Minister of Revenue and his relationship with Firoz Khan and with a beautiful singer and courtesan, Saeeda Bai.
It would be foolish to precis the plot as it may end up far longer than a precis should ever be. However, Seth uses these interconnected characters and families, history and society, time and custom, to weave a colourful diorama as entertaining, instructive, and dense as the book’s size suggests. Religious observance, sexuality and desire, hypocrisy, infidelity, colonialism, independence, tragedy, humour, parental and social power, love, and duty are all interwoven and treated with honesty and skill by a writer whose command is never in doubt.
The language is plain and sometimes surprising in its forthrightness. Standout scenes: a highly comic cocktail party with the remaining but slightly bewildered British and the newly empowered locals; the description of the near-tragic religious festival (Kumbh Mela called Pul Mela in the book) where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims bath in holy rivers all over India; and the consequences of a wayward condom.
Seth has been working on a ‘sequel’ called A Suitable Girl but as of 2019 it was unfinished; a suitable ending has proved elusive.
A Suitable Boy has been on my to-read list for years. If you decide to tackle it, give it your best. It deserves it.
Here is a charming interview with Seth from 2015, mainly about poetry and writer’s block filmed at his home in England.
The BBC produced a 6 part television series released in 2020. Directed by Mira Nair with a teleplay by Andrew Davies, you can watch the trailer here. The series is available on Netflix.
It’s a rollicking ride of the story that we think we all know, and we do know the basic facts: the Bounty was captained by William Bligh to sail to Otaheite (Tahiti) in 1789; it’s mission was to collect seedlings of breadfruit to then transport to the West Indies as a cheap food source for slaves; his first mate, Fletcher Christian, led a mutiny a few days after leaving Tahiti; William Bligh and a few loyal followers were set adrift in a small launch; they sailed, rowed, and finally made it to West Timor and the Dutch settlement of Kampung; the survivors, including Bligh, were repatriated to England. Later Bligh became Governor of the colony of New South Wales.
But Boyne’ story is told from the point of view of the cabin boy, John Jacob Turnstile, christened unkindly by the crew as ‘Turnip’. He’s fourteen years old, smart, opinionated, and roughly educated; the offer to sail saved him from his life of poverty and as a member of a group of boys in Portsmouth lorded over by the vile Mr Lewis who not only trained them in the art of pickpocketing but also made them available to entertain the particular proclivities of Portsmouth’s wealthier gentlemen.
It’s a fascinating and adventurous account of life on board a small sailing vessel in the sixteenth century and Boyne sticks to the story as history; but what is different is the characters of the main players: Mr Bligh, captain in name only, not in rank, (fact) is a strict commander but kind to Turnip and in return the boy is loyal to him; Christian, a well educated son of a wealthy family fallen on hard times, is a charismatic and handsome specimen who is the only man on board who owns a mirror, uses pomade in his hair, and is noted for his body odour because of his lack of it.
While on Otaheite, Bligh allows the men freedom to reside on the island and fraternize with the natives; many of the men, including Turnip, form relationships with the local women whose culture isn’t burdened with social and sexul mores as is the Englishmen’s.
When two sailors foolishly desert their posts and hide in a remote part of the island with their women, Bligh is outraged and regrets his original leniency and commands all the men to ‘live’ back on board the Bounty. This, in Boyne’s version, is the deed that sows the seed of the eventual rebellion. The deserters are finally caught and Bligh, lenient again, has them flogged, rather than hanged. This is only the second flogging on the entire voyage, something of a record and one that Bligh is extremely proud of, but now, again, regrets his leniency and tries to impose his authority once again.
While on their way west towards the Caribbean the men were so depressed and angry at their having to leave the climate, freedom, lifestyle, and their newfound relationships that their mutinous mumblings are stoked by Christian into mutinous deeds.
Turnip remains loyal to Bligh and joins the other 18 men on the tiny launch Christian confines them to, as they watch Christian’s men sail away tossing all the one thousand breadfruit plants into the sea as they go.
The 42 day journey in an open boat to Timor is harrowing; some men don’t survive and some men succumb to the ordeal even after reaching Timor, so malnourished and mentally exhausted were they that medical assistance couldn’t save them. Turnip survives and we learn of his return to Portsmouth and … sorry, no spoilers here.
It’s an entertaining, accomplished, and a satisfying read. Boyne’s choice of vocabulary and syntax is appropriate to time, character, and social position. The story has been filmed five times and written about more, each with Bligh as the villian; this story is different.
You can buy the Kindle version, along with other formats, here.
Like a lot of readers I discovered Jeanine Cummins via the controversy over her mega-selling fourth book, American Dirt (2020), which is a flight story of a mother and child fleeing the wrath of a drug cartel – they had murdered her journalist husband and 16 members of her immediate family – in Acapulco, Mexico for the safety of the USA. You can read my blog post about that book here. Latinx writers got very upset that a ‘white’ woman should deem to write, and successfully so, a Latina story; the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ was used a lot in the ensuing brouhaha. I’m not completely sure why, but I usually tend not to read American writers; British, Irish, European, and Australian writers keep pushing the Americans down on my to-read pile. I’ll need to address this in a future post. A friend kindly sent me the book in the mail during the Melbourne lockdown – I was caught in Australia for most of 2020. I was surprised at how good it is: a cracking good read. Yes, it was a commercial success – helped along, no doubt, by Oprah Winfrey – but the writing is also good, authoritative, and compelling.
My lock-down host then gave me this, Cummin’s second book, The Outside Boy (2010). Although this too is a book set in a different culture to her own: Ireland, and a different time: 1959, no controversy erupted over this one. Cummins identifies as ‘white’, although she has a Puerto Rican grandmother; her husband is Irish which may account for the inspirational spark here.
It is a coming-of-age story of a 12 year old boy, Christy Hurley, a tinker’s son, a traveller, a pavee, told through his eyes, his words. The mashed grammar, misplaced syntax, and sometimes literal spelling all add up to the acceptable sound of a traveller’s boy, a gypsy youth who sees the world without any city notions of blame, cause & effect, and obligation.
“She’s my mother,” I said, and even though I was whispering, my words fell into the quiet room likes stones into a pond. They rippled out til I could see them on Missus Hanley’s face. She knew the weight of them words; she took them serious.
Cummins explains in an Author’s Note that she has not been entirely true to the traveller’s voice; a truly authentic pavee voice “would have rendered the book almost impenetrable to the American reader.” Her close writing and vocabulary choices are fundamentally apt and effective, although I think an unschooled gypsy boy in 1959 Ireland would not know the words ‘precarious’ or ‘choreography’, but this is a small point.
Christy is motherless. All he has of her is a mysterious photo from a partly burnt newspaper article. She died at his birth. “I killed her!” he often says. His father is frustratingly mute on the subject of the boy’s mother, but finding the truth of her becomes his, and the book’s, quest and narrative force.
The colourful world, language, and culture of the Irish travellers are major reasons that the book is such a joy to read. Like all good fiction a novel can take you out of your own world and show you how other people live, think, and carry-on regardless.
This is a highly entertaining and moving work. Highly recommended.
Here is a short video of Cummins talking about the inspiration and the writing of The Outside Boy.
I started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, but put that aside to read this, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. I was reminded of the similarity in both books of the rigid fathers, each obsessed with Christianity and its dictates so wholly against human biology, psychology, and behaviour bringing pain to their families and perpetuating ignorance of human nature. It reinforced my belief that it is not the religion itself that breeds such misguided fervour and obedience to unshakable rules of behaviour and social relationships but the administrators of religions, who have been for millennia, men, and who for the most part have been, by their own dictates, denied many of the human emotions and subsequent relationships that they have tried so hard to mould. Men have a lot to answer for.
Salt Creek (2015) is the story of fifteen year old Hester Finch, and her large family, down on their luck in 1855, who are forced to abandon their relatively comfortable existence in Adelaide and move to a scrap of land in the remote South Australian south east bordering the Coorong: a long narrow lake, one of many lakes at the mouth of the Murray River. Lording over this family is Stanton Finch, a failed dreamer and ever hopeful, but inadequate, business man whose financial failings have forced the move. He is a devout Christian and, of course, runs his life and dealings with an indefatigable belief that god is on and at his side and a man whose good intentions are forged by a religion so irrevocably in an English manner that it seems almost incomprehensible that this religion, that Stanton Finch wants to implant onto the land and the people he inhabits, was founded in poverty, heat and dust by a poor Judean carpenter with lofty ambitions for his neighbours. Such a craftsman has more in common with the natives of Salt Creek than the white Englishmen who deem to claim him as theirs.
Life is hard, and his wife, Bridget, feels like a rib in her heart, the family’s fall from society. Her husband, thinking he was doing her a favour managed to retain two of her prized possessions: a chaise lounge and piano. But they fit uncomfortably in the shabbily built wattle and daub house her husband has built and she is reminded daily of their fall as she has to sweep and clutter around such out-of-placed furniture.
Being a good Christian man, Stanton Finch, tries to deal fairly with the local Ngarrindjeri people but his understanding is tainted by white civilisations’s attitudes coloured by ignorance of what is ‘right’, ‘natural’, and in god’s image. A young Ngarrindjeri boy called Tully, joins the family but not because of Mr Finch’s civilising influences, no mater how much the man would like to claim, but because of the boy’s innate intelligence and courage. There is a bible in the house but also a book by Charles Darwin, brought into the house by Fred Finch, a younger son, a sensitive artist and naturalist who sketches Tully as a young man sitting in a chair by the wood stove reading Darwin: an memorable and apt image of the traditional and modern that lies at the heart of the novel.
Hester, tall, independent, and competent is the book’s first-person narrator and its moral backbone; Adelaide, Addy, her younger sister is the tear-away and at the centre of the moral dilemma of the clash of cultures. There is humour, love, tragedy and the tension between god, family, and safety.
The writing is accomplished, impressive, and moving. Highly recommended.
One day I will leave here, and it will not be with another man or because of a man … How could I respect such a person … It was as if he had been wounded and I was nothing but salt.
Here is Lucy Treloar talking about Salt Creek, writing from landscape, literary prizes, and reading from the text.
I heard a lot about this book before I read it: everybody loved it. So much so that my expectations were high. I didn’t realise what it was I was expecting until it didn’t happen. There is a point in most novels, usually between pages 50 and 100, sometimes earlier, sometimes in the first line, that you realise what kind of story you are reading, or about to read. I call it the 1st plot point. Here there didn’t seem to be one. By page 150 I had to make a decision: stop or reassess my expectations. I chose the latter.
The story is set in 1922 in Moscow where a minor aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, is saved from death by an obscure poem he penned in his youth; a poem that the authorities deemed to contain revolutionary sentiments, but he is an unapologetic aristocrat and therefore a threat to the new society; so instead he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. He had been living there in some comfort but was now relegated to an attic room the size of a cupboard. What follows is his colourful life over thirty years lived entirely inside the hotel. There is not a narrative arc which a plot point would foretell but rather a series of episodes, almost a series of interconnected short stories. However, narrative tension does surface in the last chapters that propels the story to a satisfying conclusion.
The language is ‘old fashioned’, which feels entirely appropriate, reflecting the formality and social mores of a well-educated man of some means in the early twentieth century and in a country of historical turmoil; but it is also light-hearted, almost whimsical at times, subtle humour is always just below the surface.
Turning about, he walked down the hall to the card room and quietly opened the door, assuming he would find four middle-aged ladies exchanging cookies and profanities over tricks of whist – as an attentive spirit held her breath her breath in a cupboard. Instead, he found the object of his search sitting at the card table alone. With two stacks of paper in front of her and a pencil in hand, she appeared the very model of scholastic enthusiasm. The pencil was moving so brightly it looked like an honor guard – parading across the page with its head held high then pivoting at the margin to make the quick march back.
This attention to detail, but detail that informs, is a particular skill of Towles and is the main reason for the novel’s veracity.
The count loves conversation and themes of history, philosophy, art, and music pepper his conversations with his acquaintances, the guests and staff in the hotel. He forms alliances, both romantic and platonic, he befriends a young idiosyncratic girl, Nina, who also lives in the hotel, and eventually joins the staff of the hotel as the head waiter in the hotel’s prestigious restaurant. However, he is surprised, at the age of forty nine, when Nina, now married and in search of her husband, who has been exiled to Siberia, leaves her daughter, Sofia, in his charge. He becomes the girl’s ‘father’ figure and then just her father. Nina is never seen again. Sofia is a prodigy at the piano and her success propels the account of the Count’s confinement to its conclusion.
The pleasure of this book is in the writing, not the plot, which is soft, episodic, and character-building. It would not make a good movie, but it would make a good TV series which seems very likely. On August 18, 2017, Entertainment One, a Canadian production company optioned the book for development. On April 4, 2018, Towles tweeted that Kenneth Branagh had joined the project as producer and star, with Tom Harper (Peaky Binders, War & Peace) as director. In July 2019 Towles admitted publicly that he was working on the adaptation but there has been no news since.
You can watch an interview with Amor Towles about this book here.
And here you can purchase the book in various formats.
The first thing you know about this work is the person, the narrator. Thomas McNulty is seventeen and has escaped the Irish famine to find himself in the wilds of the American west, not for fame and fortune, just a life. Barry has been mining the lives of the McNulty family for inspiration for many of his works, plays and novels; but what stands out in this book is Barry’s close writing: sometimes more academically called free indirect discourse, the use of language that the character might use when speaking; and he is speaking, speaking directly to the reader in the first person. The words – like ‘knowed’ instead of knew, ‘drear’ instead of dreary, ‘swole’ instead of swollen; the punctuation – nothing fancier than a comma or full stop; and the grammar – double negatives and wrong articles, all help to paint a picture of this boy. Uneducated, naïve, but smart, observant and handsome; no, not handsome, young Thomas is pretty. It is John Cole who is handsome, ‘handsome John Cole’ he is called. They meet in the wilds of Missouri, Thomas seeks shelter from a rain-storm in a hedge and there he is, handsome John Cole.
Their relationship is tender, romantic, sexual, and strong and is at the core of the book. There is hardly any descriptive detail about this partnership, no pink-rosed romance or comfortable sex; it’s just like the scenery, the killing, the survival, it’s just there.
And there is a lot of killing. The two boys get enlisted into the army and take part in the Indian Wars and then the Civil War. There is murder, mayhem, scalpings, scrotums removed to be dried out for bakky pouches, vaginas pinned on hats, children hacked, heads blown off Confederate soldiers not men yet; and all described with the plane observation and simple descriptive language gleaned from Thomas McNulty’s short little life, like he describes the glorious sunsets and the mountains ‘as black as burnt bread’ in the lands that don’t have names yet.
When the boys aren’t killing Indians or gray-boys they are play-acting to earn a dollar. First in a prairie hotel, they don frilly dresses and dance with the miners to offer a bit of pseudo-female company. No hanky-panky mind, just dancin’ and polite conversation including drunken but demure marriage proposals that are gently refused; and later in a grown-up theatre where Thomas sings romantic ballads in makeup and a dress to make grown men cry. Eventually Thomas and John and their adopted ‘daughter’ Winona, an Indian child saved from a bullet by Thomas’s quick thinking, settle down in post-war Tennessee growing tobacco. However, Thomas’s past deeds catch up with him and a happy ending is in doubt. No spoilers here.
But it’s Barry’s writing that is the star. You feel the need to re-read sentences and passages, the joy and innocence of them is captivating. Here is his description of the Major’s new wife:
There’s something sleek about her, like a trout moving through water. Her hair is glossy as pine-needles, pitch black, and she wears a diamond-spangled net over it, like she was ready for business. She carries one of those new Colt guns in her belt. She’s better armed than we are. Guess we think Mrs Neale is top-notch alright. It warms my heart to see how much she is kind to the major. They link arms about the place and she talks like a geyser. Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop.
The book is dedicated to his son, Toby:
“Years ago, when he was 16 and I was doing the reading for this book, Toby was very unhappy, and when a young man is unhappy we must take note. I was desperately trying to find out what was wrong, but you can’t ask him directly. You have to be a sleuth, a kind of Sherlock Holmes of his unhappiness … Then one morning he came into our bedroom and said, ‘The thing is Dad, I’m gay.’ I can’t describe to you the immense sense of relief and freedom in the very speaking of the words. His unhappiness fell away, my unhappiness fell away, and from that moment on we entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life … I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.”
Barry won the Costa Award, for an unprecedented second time, with Days Without End; it is also long-listed for the current Man-Booker Prize. The winner will be announced in October.
This is an unsentimental work full of violence but anchored by deep love and commitment that is all the more powerful for its simple existence and unwavering certainty.
You can purchase the book in various formats here.
The most remarkable thing about Cold Light, the last in the Edith Trilogy (Grand Days 1993, Dark Palace 2000, Cold Light 2011), and indeed the trilogy itself, is the woman, Edith Campbell Berry. She is the type of woman who, while working at the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1920s and visiting a Paris nightclub, slips lightly from the lap of a lone black musician and puts his penis in her mouth; falls for and marries a bi-sexual, cross-dressing, English diplomat but only after mis-marrying an American journalist who turns out not to be whom he seems; masturbates a mutilated war veteran as her deed for post-war reconstruction; hates the smell of keys, and who kisses her brother’s girlfriend on the lips. This is Edith Campbell Berry who in 1950 finds herself, aged in her 40s, living in Canberra “…about as far from the centre of the modern world as you can get without being in a desert … a slap-dash country of such unhappy food.”
If this mismatch isn’t mismatched enough Cold Light opens with Edith discovering her long-lost brother, Frederick, who is now a working member of the Communist Party which is about to be banned by the new Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. How’s a girl, with a lavender husband and a red brother supposed to get a job in this town? This is particularly galling for Edith who wants – believing she deserves it – a status-riddled diplomatic post, which was something then a married woman could not have no matter what colour her husband was.
Because of a few pulled strings, she gets an invitation to dinner at the Lodge, where she airs and wears her Chanel, but diplomatically tells the other wives ‘it’s a copy’, and gets a hand up her dress from the man on her left, something she relishes, and offered a job by the man on her right, something she despises, because it’s only a job of sorts: as ‘special’ assistant to Canberra’s Town Planner. However, despite its low status, really no status as all, she is inspired by the sketches of the Canberra dream made by Marion Mahony Griffin, wife of Walter Burley Griffin, and takes the job but insists on her own office, gets one, but one with no windows, and decorates it with bespoke furniture from Melbourne and a cumquat tree. She drinks Scotch, is a fastidious dresser, wears stockings under slacks, a Tam o’ Shanter, when necessary, and does her husband’s nails and lets him wear her silk nightie to bed.
Edith Campbell Berry is a hotel cat: mistrusted by a few, loved by most, but belonging to no-one. Her wish for a Bloomsbury life leads her to recognise a man for her, and so marries again, but after years that began passionately, her marriage slips into one of normality and routine (wonderfully and insightfully described by Moorhouse) and when confronted by a new Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, whose lieutenants know nothing of her, her ideas, or what she has to offer, she is then unemployed, discarded, and emotionally alone. However, her past does not desert her, and her experience as an officer of the League of Nations in Geneva (Grand Days), her work in Spain during the civil war and her position on a UN committee (Dark Palace), and her reputation in Canberra, mainly fuelled by incorrect gossip about MI5, ASIO and her truthful but unconventional life, comes to the attention of Whitlam. She is offered a position as an ‘eminent person’ to be a pair of eyes for the new Australian government in areas of international diplomacy and unease. She is delighted. This takes her to the Middle East where the book ends, surprisingly, dramatically, but really, so appropriately. No spoilers here.
Frank Moorhouse is a living Australian writer who deserves to be better known. He has won the Miles Franklin Award (for Dark Palace) and many state and national awards as well. The Edith Trilogy is a major contribution to Australian literature where trilogies are rare: Henry Handle Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1917 – 1929) and Ruth Park’s Harp in the South (1948 – 1985) are ones that spring to mind. The books are big, Cold Light, is very big, but where Moorhouse excels is his tone and insight into love and all its shades, romance, sex, politics, human frailty, personal ambitions, and inevitable failures. All three books can be read in isolation but once you taste Edith Campbell Berry you will want to taste her again, so read them all. You won’t regret it and you won’t forget her.
You can buy the eBook here for $10.99, as well as the others in the trilogy.
In Indonesia in 1965, fifty-one years ago, a coup against President Sukarno was crushed by the military leadership of Suharto and the blame fell on the Communist Party (PKI) which led to mass killings of suspected Communist members, sympathizers, and their families. Nowhere was the massacre more severe than in Bali: in the weeks surrounding Christmas 1965 it has been estimated that 80,000 people were killed; around 5% of the island’s population. Village people could not opt out: if you did not name someone as a Communist, you, yourself were suspected of being one. Even if you were merely fighting for land reform or education for women and girls, these communist-tainted ideologies were enough to condemn you. Villagers who huddled with their terrified, but relieved, families after naming a neighbour, then had to listen to screams as those neighbours were dragged from their beds and hacked to death with machetes; no-one could expect the relatively swift and painless bullet from a gun: too expensive. Villages only had long-handled sickle-like knives they used for cutting grass for their pigs; those and other methods that were easy at hand.
“We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished”.
— Adi Zulkadry, death squad leader quoted in the Oscar nominated documentay The Act of Killing
Old scores, family feuds, village rivalries that had been simmering for decades, generations, suddenly had an outlet for settlement. Any Bali villager today over the age of 60 must have memories of that time; and their families, being spared, must have had a hand in it. So the logic goes.
There have been various books, (including Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously), and films and documentaries (40 Years of silence: An Indonesian Tragedy, 2009, The Act of Killing, 2012) that were based on this ‘tragedy’.
“1965 is an event that has and continues to influence many Indonesians and as such, we chose to dedicate a proportion of the program to enriching our understanding about this, through themes of reconciliation and remembrance. We hoped that these panel sessions would enable conversations to take place that continue Indonesia on its journey of healing, particularly for those whose lives were so severely affected.” Janet deNeefe, Founder and Director, Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.
The Ubud Festival has presented many written and visual works based on the killings at various festivals but it was the 2015 festival that the police stepped in and forced the organisers to cancel various sessions; the 50th anniversary too remindful, too dangerous, too raw to allow talk and debate about such a controversial event – “the massacre of up to 500,000 or more alleged Communists between 1965 and 1968 by the Suharto regime.”
“Unfortunately, whilst we pride ourselves in bringing topical issues to the forefront of national and international dialogue, we had to consider the festival’s program in its entirety and the many other important issues which will be explored through it, including human rights, activism and censorship,’ DeNeefe said.
Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, last year refused to apologise to the victims of 1965, even though he had made an election promise to confront Indonesia’s past cases of human rights violations. The event is not taught in schools; it is being erased from the country’s history.
It was this event of 1965 that inspired British writer Louise Doughty, a regular visitor to the Ubud Festival to write Black Water, her ninth novel, which was published by Faber & Faber earlier this year.
Ironically many writers choose fiction to highlight real events.
“Novels arise from the shortcomings of history”. So said Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, born 2 May 1772 and known by his pen name, Novalis. The facts of history are usually dry and un-engaging, so to engage readers writers use the novelist’s art of researching the facts by talking to the participants, then imagining the detail; the personal detail that can grab a reader’s attention, put them in the character’s shoes and inspire them to dig further, light their own imagination and spur them on to seek more answers: the truth can inspire fiction in the writer and then that fiction can inspire truth in the reader.
Black Water tells the personal fictive story of a mixed race (Dutch, Malay) man, an intelligence operative, called, by his English name, John Harper. The book is divided into three parts: the first set in 1998 when Harper is on ‘forced leave’ in Bali (why?) and embarks on a love-affair; part 2 is his early mixed race life in the Dutch East Indies, Holland, the US, and then Indonesia from 1942 to 1965, the year of ‘the tragedy’ which marked the making of Suharto; and finally, back to 1998 where the personal and the historical co-mingle; where we discover what really happened to John Harper.
Doughty is often described as a thriller-writer but in supplying the personal facts to colour the historical truth Doughty doesn’t describe the horrific violence but ‘imagines’ what could happen: dense prose of the atrocities that could befall you if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time; like most village victims. This and rather flippant drops of dryness, along with little glimpses into the future undermine any suspense as if such novelistic techniques were too commercial; or maybe it’s her attempt to dislodge the ‘thriller’ epithet. Consequently, the reader is distanced from the actual threat to Harper’s life rendering his fear as mere paranoia until well towards the end where the narrative takes on a page-turning haste that would’ve served the text better had it arrived earlier. It’s really a small point but important from a reader’s point of view. However, Doughty’s side-stepping of horrific descriptions of torture and murder may just be her novelistic skill at work: preparing us, blind-siding us, for the tense and terrifying climax. But Doughty at her best is when she is charting the geography of the heart especially of lonely, damaged people as they fumble for some support, trust, and commitment even if talk of such things are rarely on their lips.
Doughty, a British writer of Romany descent was born in 1963. She spent most of her twenties in casual teaching and temporary secretarial jobs, the latter supplying material for her first novel Crazy Paving (1995). She has been nominated and won many awards as well as being a judge for some of the prizes she has, in the past, won.
Black Water is the first book I have read that is set in the place where I live. I was interested in Doughty’s book to give colour, weight, and detail to the events of 1965 that have only filtered through to me via the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Literature in Indonesia is not an important pastime, especially in Bali where free time is usually taken up with duties to the banjar (village council) and the temple. But this is changing although Indonesia’s most famous novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, via his Baru Quartet, publishing in English by Penguin, is not known in Indonesia: the book in the Indonesian language is banned because of its anti-authority themes. Indonesia is a country that is crawling out from under its past but it’s a slow and bumpy ride. Black Water should help to it along a bit.
Since 1996 Ian McGuire has been at The University of Manchester initially as a lecturer in American Literature and more recently as a lecturer in Creative Writing. He now co-directs the Centre for New Writing. His first novel, Incredible Bodies, “very funny and disconcertingly sad” said The Times; a contemporary campus novel was published by Bloomsbury in 2006. He specialises in the American realist tradition; Melville, Conrad are evoked in The North Water, his second novel (2016), and not just because it is set on a whaler. However the tone is most-certainly modern, mainly because of the very modern ‘foul’ language: he pulls no punches.
McGuire’s notable reviewers of The North Water, Hilary Mantel, Martin Amis, and Colm Tóibín, have written repeatedly about his “narrative tension” and his “remorselessly vivid” prose but when the writer writes narratives, each stuffed with its own tense detailed vividness: the brutal murder, then rape of a street urchin; the evisceration of a screaming sepoy; a face blown away with musket-shot; an arm ripped from a man’s torso by a ravenous polar bear; that same creature killed with a harpoon to the spine; the slaughter, dismemberment, and carving up of whales and their blubber; the medical inspection of a ravished anus; oh, and a whoring piece of low-life who sniffs then sucks his filthy fingers just “getting his final money’s worth”, all one needs to do is describe all this simply and accurately and ‘remorseless vividness’ is what you’ve got. I’m not at all deriding McGuire’s work, quite the opposite, but when your material is as rich, rare, and image-encrusted as any material can get, describing it simply is what a talented writer must do; and he does.
The tale, circa 1859, is one of a whaling expedition from the sludge of the Humber estuary, northeast England, to the whiskey ‘n’ women – each at a shilling a pop – in Lerwick of the wind-blown Shetlands, then north, and north again, and as far north as one can possibly go, beyond the Arctic Circle to the North Water, northwest of Greenland, in a boat packed with foul-mouthed vagabonds, murderers, liars, rapists, brutish thugs, opportunists with grudges; where life is a drudge, full of excrement, gore, and blood; where death is as easy and as light as a penny; where killing is a chore after your porridge, and where one shits first or is forever shat upon. Get the picture?
All ye who must like your book’s characters keep well away from this one.
But, yes, it is one of the most pleasurable reads I’ve had in a long time. This is where literary fiction meets plot and the latter comes up trumps; ah, but oh how sweet a brutal plot can be when it’s dressed in literariness and style such as this!
There are two main characters, Henry Drax, a villain of “pure evil” if there ever was one – we see him in all his ‘gory’, literary; and Patrick Sumner, a disgraced surgeon from his days serving the Raj in India, where a simple miscalculation under fire shatters his reputation. These two misfits, one with a shadow of redemption, the other, with absolutely none, lock horns on a fatal voyage where whaling may or may not be the ultimate goal: no spoilers here.
McGuire uses an omnipotent third-person narrator with no literary qualms about swapping POVs; all for going where the narrative takes him. (See my previous post of TheFilthHeart, where the writer, Dan Simmons, abounds in such undermining qualms). The pace is fast and engaging but for brief passage of short but dense and fascinating description. A great read!
On January 12, 1830 in a poor rural community in northern Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, 34 years old, a farmhand, and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmer’s son were beheaded for the murder of two men almost two years earlier. For the months leading up to her execution Agnes was forced to live with a farming family who were extremely reluctant hosts but forced to do so by the farmer’s local administrative responsibilities. The executions were the last in Iceland, for in 1869 executions were outlawed in Iceland under Danish law.
In 2002 Hannah Kent was 17 years old and on a student exchange program, living and studying, in the north of Iceland. She arrived in January when the place was dominated by snow and darkness (for 20 hours a day). She was lonely, socially isolated on the edge of the world, and cold. On a trip around the region, obviously in a gap in the weather, she asked about local places of significance and she was directed to three small hills, white against white, where, her host parents said, a woman called Agnes was beheaded: the last execution in Iceland.
“I was immediately intrigued. What had she done? What had happened? … Retrospectively, I can only speculate that the strange, isolated place of Agnes’s death made me think of my own feelings of loneliness; that I thought of Agnes as a fellow outsider in a remote Icelandic community, and I identified with her in some small way.”
In January 2011 Hannah Kent had to face the task of writing an historical novel as the creative component of a PhD and her discovery of Agnes’s story nine years earlier sprang to mind.
Burial Rites is the result.
The thought of reading an Australian writer’s work with no gum trees (no tress at all actually), no kangaroos and no barbeques was too tantalising to resist. Kent uses two narrative frames: an uninvolved narration in the third person and a more poetic one in the first, as Agnes and so giving her a voice. The landscape, social and familial structures are revealed, not in dense descriptive paragraphs but as a background to the action. The arrival of Agnes at the lonely farm, her ostracisation, her predicament and demeanour are all skilfully drawn as is the family members of her reluctant jailers; and part of the charm of the situation is the slow growing understanding between the doomed woman and her hosts.
Of course the force that drives the plot is ‘did she or didn’t she’ and as the months of summer give way to the always harsh winter Agnes’s position improves and one thinks that the details of her background and crime will emerge in her religious counselling from a very young trainee clergyman, Toti (a rather wasted character). However this does not happen, instead Kent peppers the text with the story of Agnes and the eventual crime of which she is accused, through more poetic monologues from Agnes, part of the first-person narrative, and through dialogues by the fire with the mistress of the house, Margrit. This is a mistake on Kent’s part as she already has an impartial third person narrator that could faithfully serve as a means to dramatise the events rather than through a static duologue of two women sitting down before a fire in the dead of an Icelandic winter. Agnes’s first person narrative is intriguing and personalises the historical figure, which is exactly what a first-person narrative should do; but in the latter stages of the story, when we discover the romantic relationship between Agnes and one of the dead men, Kent’s re-imagining of this relationship descends into soap-opera of the ‘love him-hate him-love him’ kind. Such personal ruminations may be the musings of a lovelorn teenager but Agnes is mature, intelligent, and self-aware so notions of ‘if only I could talk to him I could change his mind,’ do not ring true.
These weaknesses in the text damage Kent’s novelistic authority but in relation to the work itself they are minor. Burial Rites is an imaginative, a mostly well-crafted debut with a wonderful evocation of period and life well within the Arctic Circle, and I look forward to her next work, which I believe will also be set in Iceland.
Burial Rites has won, among others, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award People’s Choice Award, and for Kent she was named the 2014 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist.
Kent co-founded and served as deputy editor of the Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings.Burial Rites was released in Australia, the USA and the UK in 2013 and translation rights have been sold to 15 countries. In October this year she toured Canada as a guest of the Calgary’s Wordfest, the Vancouver Writer’s Festival and the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.
It was reported in 2013 two months after the book’s release that Jennifer Lawrence is scheduled to star, as Agnes, in the movie version of Burial Rites, directed by her Hunger Games director, Gary Ross.