The Children Act by Ian McEwan

There is a ridiculous game in which people ask themselves who their ideal guests at a fantasy dinner party would be, dead or alive. I usually roll my eyes and groan inwardly whenever this question is presented to me. The ludicrousness of the notion bores me senseless. But if I HAD to pick one, and I’m talking gun-at-my-head moment, then Ian McEwan would definitely be on the guest list. Him and his clever clan of comrades including Christopher Hitchens (dead), Salman Rushdie (alive), and Martin Amis (alive). This quadrumvirate of superior intellects and creative geniuses absolutely fascinate me not only for their collective body of work but also for the fact they are indeed close friends. But let’s be honest. If I were faced with the prospect of dinner with these fine four, I would be mute with inferiority or squealing with excess inebriation. Neither of these prospects makes for a sophisticated Saturday night.

But back to McEwan.

While Amsterdam and Atonement were my first and second McEwan novels (I wrote about Atonement here), The Children Act has been the latest pleasure. Atonement is a hefty tome spanning many years and much global turmoil including a world war (the second one). In many respects The Children Act is the antithesis of this. Lighter in page numbers than Atonement and set in the microcosm of the judiciary, The Children Act follows a specific moment in time for its protagonist, Fiona Maye. Fiona is a high court judge who must decide the fate of a child who, for religious reasons, is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion. The ‘child’ is 17 and will be an adult in a few months time so Fiona is faced with the ethical dilemma of deciding the fate of the life of someone who is a breath away from being an adult. This is coupled with the fact that she presides over a secular institution and is making a decision based on the religious acts of her defendant (the hospital caring for the child is prosecuting the case).

Make no mistake; while The Children Act is set against a backdrop of a small section of society few of us are exposed to, there are enormous themes about the human condition and the ethics of human life. The subject matter is rich in questions, many of which are unanswered and perplexing.

I wouldn’t say this is McEwan’s greatest novel, but it is small and mighty and it made me think. That, if anything else, is worth the afternoon’s reading investment.

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I am unashamedly an historical fiction zealot. There is something about being taken back to a time before my own and a place far away that, to me, is the very essence of fiction. There is an undeniable connection between history and fiction. Narrative is used as both a devise and essential tool in recreating the representations of the past that we understand as history. And sometimes, it’s just a lazy way for me to feel like I’m learning, regardless of the credibility of the tome as historical fact.

And so I embarked on Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Set in nineteenth century Iceland, Kent’s tale fictionalises the events leading up to the beheading of an accused murderer, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Agnes is sent to live with a peasant family while awaiting her fate and is visited by a junior priest to whom she shares her tale of woe. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was a real woman and was the last person to be executed in Iceland. Kent’s research is satisfying as fiction and history merge at the border with symbiotic ease.

Kent’s prose is beautiful. She writes both in first person narrative as Agnes and also in the third person for the other characters when she is not in Agnes’ head. This provides the reader with a unique understanding of the motivations and impetus of each of the characters. Further, the Iceland she creates is bewitching as a backdrop and almost becomes a character of its own. When describing the turn of season Kent writes, ‘the wind has lost its teeth’. A simple description but one that resonates deeply and is easily and beautifully understood.

A condemned woman, Agnes’ fate is sealed and while there is hope that she will be saved, her demise is inevitable. A blanket of melancholy wraps around Agnes for the duration of the novel and does not leave her, even after the last page. This melancholy is juxtaposed with a haunting beauty, both for Iceland and the relationships between the characters. An absolute pleasure to read.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The delight of the discovery of a new author whose novel is thrilling and captivating is a rare and wonderful treat. The discovery that the author has other treasures to unearth is like the great dinner party that doesn’t end and the convivial conversation will continue.

Sometimes the first novel you read by any given author is the highlight and the peak of a limited mountain. An anomaly, however engaging, but one that is not replicated. I found this to be the case with the works of Gillian Flynn. I could not put down Gone Girl but when I read her other tomes – Dark Places and Sharp Objects, I was frustrated by their inadequacy. On their own they may have been satisfying enough, but having read Gone Girl, they really were the poor cousins of Flynn’s collection. It almost took the shine off the great experience of reading Gone Girl. Happily, this has not been the case with my experience of the works of Donna Tartt. At the end of last year I read The Goldfinch (I wrote about it here). Loved. Loved. Loved. It was with slight trepidation that I embarked on her first novel, The Secret History. Would it live up to the same standard as her previous work? Oh lord I hoped so.

And indeed it did. The Secret History is a coming of age novel set in an east-coast American University at a time in the not too distant past (but definitely before mobile phones and the Internet which I have now come to realise makes the time seem further away than it really is). Narrator and hapless protagonist Richard Papen shares the defining moment of his formative years and the characters that shaped his future. The story centres on the death of one of Richard’s friends and class-mates; both the preamble and epilogue to this watershed event. Surrounded by his motley crew of intellectual misfits, Richard struggles to fit into this eccentric and very private group.

Eventually Richard ingratiates himself to become part of their inner circle but once he does, a perverse world of secret rituals, incestuous relationships and dark demons is revealed. Their shared love of the classics and language is marred by their misguided deeds. There are some very sinister and bleak consequences that are sometimes shocking and sometimes predictable. But this novel is never dull and having completed it fairly recently, I look back on it with the same affection I do the film Dead Poets’ Society. Smart. Warm. Endearing. Depressing. And full of frenetic Love.

After Darkness by Christine Piper

As a Modern History undergrad I had the pleasure of being taught by a wonderfully eccentric, intelligent and brilliant man. Not only were his tutorials entertaining and engaging, his feedback on assignments remain, to date, unsurpassed. One particular treasure was:

“This is a neat paper. I mean that in a tidy as well as a Brady-Bunch kind of way”. Oh Howard, how I miss thee.

These immortal words echoed through my mind as I read, After Darkness. It was a lovely novel. The premise was interesting and the writing was nice. Set in pre and post WWII Japan with Australia in the middle, After Darkness follows the education and subsequent career of a young Japanese doctor. Torn between a love for his country and the moral impetus of his Hippocratic Oath, Dr Ibaraki negotiates a harsh life interned in a POW camp in a brutal and isolated part of Australia.

The novel flashes back to Ibaraki’s life in Japan; his childhood, his first job and his marriage. These moments begin to piece together a fractured life, one that has seen sorrow, disappointment and conflict alongside joy and stilted happiness. His life in the POW camp, while harsh, is somewhat better than his counterparts due to his status as doctor. But there is a heavy blanket of melancholy that covers Ibaraki that reveals itself slowly like a lily opening up after too much water.

Ibaraki seems to have lived life on a borderland. Not quite happy, not quite sad. Not quite successful and not completely feckless. And so it is with After Darkness. It is not completely engaging in an ‘un-put-downable’ way, but it is a pleasurable journey and one worth taking.

PS rest assured, I received a Distinction average under Howard’s tutelage, Cindy Brady references and all.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

When Baz Luhrman announced to the world that his latest film was called ‘Australia’, I was filled with trepidation. While the adage don’t judge a book by its cover may ring true (it doesn’t – we all judge), a project’s title sets the tone for the entire body of work. I had already prejudged the film because I have my own preconceptions about Australia, the land of my birth and life. Inevitably, I did not enjoy the film. In fact, I did not see it through to the final scene and gave up about half way along. Sorry Baz, you should have called it ‘Outback’.

So when I stumbled across a book called ‘The Interestings’, that same feeling of trepidation came over me. It would want to be, as the title suggests, interesting. The title actually refers to the name a group of young teenagers give their clique. But this self-appointed moniker is a little ironic given one of the protagonists meanders through a fairly feckless existence filled with disappointments and unfulfilled potential. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this novel because I found myself highly engaged throughout much of it. However, the benchmark the book set for itself meant that any moments of shade against the light were going to be judged as lacklustre.

One of the problems with books that cover a wide era is that arcs of time need to be managed carefully. It seemed that one minute the 1990s were upon the characters and then, oh wow, it’s September 11. Moving on, the characters are 50. I’m not sure why the author chose to cover such a significant moment in world history if its effect on her characters was the mere passage of time.

So perhaps this book would have been better titled ‘See-Saw’ as that is truly how it felt.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

In many films set in 1980s America, all the kitchens seem to house coffee percolators. These machines would later be replaced by espresso machines as sure as crimped hair and leg warmers were replaced by GHD-straightened hair and peplums. The coffee in these percolators would drip relatively innocuously into the jug or cup below: what began as murky water would slowly and carefully turn into a much anticipated river of caffeine that would delight its maker. Reading The Sound of Things Falling, I had the image of a percolator in my mind. The novel started with a slow drip of sentences and paragraphs until the much anticipated river of prose came into being.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel is set in Latin American pre and post Pablo Escobar’s years of turmoil and terror. The multi-generational story unfolds and is woven through the lives of a couple of protagonists whose meeting is as unusual as their connection. Like the murky water, I was not sure whether or not I was enjoying this tale. I was confused and unsure where it was going. But as a reader I was in the very competent hands of Vasquez and I allowed myself to lead quietly and carefully like a small child being lead into the warm summer waters of a favourite beach.

I am not overly familiar with the political history of Latin America although reading this tale has peaked my interest. Escobar’s drug cartels act as backdrop and it seems entirely inevitable that good and evil conflate due to the times. While there are many moments of melancholy in The Sound of Things Falling I would not call this a sad novel. In fact, there are many moments of muted triumph as protagonists adjust to their coarse and bumpy environment with acts of great love and selflessness.

Genre | The Biography

Rather than post about a specific book, I thought I’d post about a genre – the biography.

I really enjoy reading biographies – particularly about people from history. I also find historical biographies tend to be more authentic and less self-indulgent than an autobiography or a biography of a living person. It’s as though the living person needs to somehow be immortalised into fabulousness prior to their physical departure from earth. It’s really the pinnacle of hubris.

What irritates me about most biographies though is the seemingly laborious formula they all seem to follow. The narrative follows the same chronological structure – childhood, relationship with parents/ sibling, high school, after school, THEN the interesting thing that I want to read about. It’s a curious idiosyncrasy of the genre that all biographies seem to include the sunny/ cloudy/ rainy day that the protagonists was born rather than head directly to the interesting anecdotes!

Having said that, I think the biography is sometimes belittled for not being a true form of history and I believe it absolutely has its place in public and micro history. These intimate portraits are very, readable and sometimes a lot of fun!

Biographies I enjoyed include
Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman – highly readable and extensively researched book about the life of a member of fashionable society, an influential hostess and a member of the Whig party. Adored by those around her, her husband falls in love with her best friend and abandons her emotionally and then physically. Fascinating insight into the powerlessness of women a relatively short time ago. Oh, and she’s related to the late Princess Diana!

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson – this book was researched and written with Jobs’ permission but it holds no punches. Gritty and raw, Jobs gave Isaacson permission to share the good, the bad and the ugly. Made me want to sort out my wifi and sync all my digital tools (I did).

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir –Weir is the master of the historical biography. Well-researched and highly readable.

The Consolation of Joe Cinque by Helen Garner – I wrote about my intellection crush on Helen Garner here. This is part biography, part true crime. Made me really question our legal system.

Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley – I borrowed this from my mother’s book shelf when I was 13 and was hooked.

Open by Andre Agassi – honest, self-deprecating and some jaw-opening OMG moments.

Still Me by Christopher Reeve – Superman and a super man. Tissues are essential.

Biographies I did not enjoy that much
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman – I wrote about it (here) but it felt way to sanitised to be authentic.

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran – the premise is interesting but the writing style is irritating. Actually, the same applies to HHhH by Laurent Binet.

Biographies on my ‘to read’ spreadsheet
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Bonkers: My Life in Laughs by Jennifer Saunders
Living History by Hilary Rodham Clinton
My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn

Can you suggest any biographies that should be added to my list?