The Dry by Jane Harper

I have taken a lover. I have never met anyone like him. He is a breath of fresh air.

His name is Dyson. I think I’m in love.

I don’t know what specifically or technically defines a heat wave. If it is the suffocating and choking heat that has gripped Sydney for the last two months to the point of asphyxiation, then that’s sound enough a definition for me. There is nothing like the unrelenting pain of unstoppable heat; the type of excessive warmth that makes you sweat lying down and you never feel clean. It’s weary. It’s depressive. It ain’t for me. #teamAutumn

In this novel, heat and temperature are more than just backdrop. The very plot and narrative of The Dry could not exist without such an impenetrable protagonist. Set in rural Australia, the rising mercury coincides with rising madness to the point of folly and psychosis. The heat is brutal and unrelenting to the point, as reader, I never felt truly comfortable.

I am not generally a fan of crime fiction as can be evidenced here (pun intended). But The Dry is good. It’s very good.

But if, like me, a novel can completely overpower you, I suggest you wait until the temperature drops and the leaves begin to fall lest you are overpowered by its roasting gaze.

If you cannot wait, get a lover. Get a lover like Dyson.

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Like I Can Love by Kim Lock

Most Aussies, myself included, are fairly adept at the art of the sledge, particularly towards their fellow countrymen. Competitive banter is a national pastime: the State of Origin annual footy series pins New Souths Wales against Queensland (go Blues!), and don’t get me started about the whole Sydney v Melbourne thang. South Australia is not left untouched by good-natured deprecation. Good ole SA is a state I have only visited once mind you and I was fifteen years old! But you know, whatevs.

(In my well-informed view), I’ve often thought of the great state of South Australia as the state of serial killers and great wine (there could be a connection, I’m not sure). Like seriously, the wine is AWESOME and I would have tried, you know, all of them. The serial killer comment may be a bit harsh critique but hey, google “Snowtown” and you decide.

After reading this novel, I also find it the state of domestic violence which is not fair on SA but author Kim Lock uses the locale as such significant backdrop, it almost becomes a protagonist. I don’t know where to start. I don’t think I’ve used the word harrowing in any of my previous blogs and I introduce it now with ease. This novel is incredibly harrowing and it exposes the absolute effortlessness of subjugation and domination on the domestic front. Small and yet manipulative acts of control seep their way like osmosis as wife Jenna becomes subsumed by husband Ark’s scheming and domineering influence. The acts of control begin as small advances which increase with discombobulated regularity as it invades and settles into permanent habitation. It is excruciating to bear witness to this insidious type of abuse.

There are a couple of secondary and concurrent plotlines in this book but the stand-out is Jenna’s story and her descent into vulnerability that becomes emotional and physical depravation. I don’t think a book like this can ever be ‘enjoyed’ in the true sense of the word but it does provide a glaring lamppost, illuminating the reader to the sinister and dangerous world of domestic violence, the most devastating symptom of which is its concealment.

 

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

After a couple of false starts, I have truly emerged from my literary funk. The last two books I have read have been glorious and I have ploughed  through them zealously in order to reap the harvest after a long and tedious drought. There is nothing more fulfilling that devouring the sweet and succulent dessert of a great tome. And I am a greedy eater.

From a plot perspective, The Natural Way of Things had remnants of Emma Donoghue’s The Room and a splash of John Fowles’ The Collector for good measure. At the core of these texts is the story of the trapped and powerless. The seized are all invariably women and they are imprisoned, for the most part, for and by the trappings of their femininity. But to simplify the novel in those terms alone would be a great injustice to this literary work. There is a far more compelling message to be absorbed within its pages.

The Natural Way of Things is an allegory on the subjugation of women: the double standards placed on women and their sexuality. The tale at a surface reading is creepy enough. A group of young women are kept against their will in the harsh and unforgiving outback. Peeling back even the slightest layer reveals a treatise on modern constructions of femininity and female sexuality. The trapped women are a symbol for the imprisonment of the gender through time and the historical stifling of women’s voices. Women are soiled by the deeds they commit in the pursuit of mediocre existence and survival.

This book is brutal. And compelling. I never felt very comfortable like a wicker chair long past its used by date. Indeed, at times it made me feel nauseous as it revealed its true self to me. But this text is important. It sits alongside the essays of Caitlin Moran, Naomi Wolf and Roxane Gay and the seminal works of of Anne Summers and Miriam Dixson in its importance to the evolution of modern feminism. As International Women’s Day approaches on 8 March, it is timely to reflect on the movement to suffrage in the not too distant past and the current and contemporary struggles of pay parity and more.

The Things We Keep by Sally Hepworth

There is a nickname given to me by a dear friend (thanks J). It is a secret and delicious pleasure. hCloud, my bequeathed moniker, is a play on Apple’s iCloud and my name. This soubriquet was bestowed upon me many years ago in deference to my perceived superior memory. The altruist in question was admittedly going through a divorce, studying a law degree and trying to raise two children under five. A small slip of any trivial detail would surely be forgiven. However, the epithet she imparted on me has stuck and frankly, I love it. Call it my superpower. And be warned. I use it. (*I can also store a bucket load of useless information but you get the idea).

So for me, the thought of losing memory is too frightening to comprehend. Forgetting to bring home a loaf of bread from the supermarket causes no end of self-deprecation. The notion that an invisible force could creep up on me and take away such a precious part of my being is unimaginable.

The Things We Keep is the story of a young woman, Anna, with early onset Alzheimer’s who enters a residential care facility as she begrudgingly accepts that she no longer has the capacity to care for herself. While her wit is still relatively sharp, day-to-day activities are now wrought with unusual complexities. A former Paramedic, the carer now becomes the cared. Coupled with the new and unfamiliar surrounds of her new-found imprisonment, her co-residents are mostly the elderly and infirm. There is only one other co-habitant within 30 years of her cohort, Luke, and he too has begun the crippling journey into dementia. Insightfully much of the novel is told from Anna’s perspective so the reader really gets to know Anna’s charismatic personality and have front row access to the betrayal of her own mind. She attempts to stave off her fate through her relationship with Luke: they become co-conspirators in love.

Not a horror story The Things We Keep is horrific in the mercilessness it conveys. The power of relationships is explored through some wonderful exchanges. The elderly residents are as beguiling as they are batty: an uplifting antidote to the malady of the weak. Secondary protagonist Eve counters the bleak reality of Anna’s inevitable demise and Eve’s daughter Clementine provides a support act of naïve kindness and affection.

As I travelled through this tale, I began to understand that memory loss is, at its core, a naked vulnerability. A person becomes dependent on those around them, strangers or otherwise. The act of disempowerment is one of life’s cruel twists that indiscriminately attacks its prey. Like an unseen tide capsizing an unsuspecting ship, all attempts to remain steady are swiftly humbled by the omnipresence of its grip.

The Women’s Pages by Debra Adelaide

Years ago I discovered that one of the [many] benefits to staying home sick from school was the opportunity to watch really bad day-time television. It was an education in itself really: everything I know I learned from Oprah. It also provided the opportunity to get exposed to some very adult themes in an incredibly diverse way. The Bold & The Beautiful was a particularly favourite remedy during any convalescence. It was mind-boggling what any one single face-lifted beauty could endure over the course of a soapie year: several marriages (Elizabeth Taylor had nothing on these crazy cats); engagements; incest and a pregnancy or failed attempted murder. All while running a successful fashion business or hospital (why are they always in hospital?). Oh, and the odd kidnapping by a mysterious and inexplicably familiar looking sultan with perfect teeth.

What. The Actual. F*ck?

These soapies were deliciously addictive in their ridiculousness and I am not above returning to them whenever a sniffle gets the better of me. Comfortingly all these years later, the characters are the same (older, with slightly fewer wrinkles) and it doesn’t take long to become re-immersed in the land of botoxed whimsy. While these vignettes are fun once in a while, I don’t think the same sort of entertainment can be garnered from a literary novel. The mediums are far too different and the written form requires an entirely different style of plot drivers to keep readers engaged.

Which brings me to this novel. Told from the perspective of a young married women (fictional) and the author who imagined her (the non-fictional fictional woman), The Women’s Papers traverses decades and some pretty significant milestones in the lives of women. While sadly there are no perfectly dentured sultans, there are enough polarising characters to overfill this cup. Because that is how the novel feels: too full. To me it seems as though Adelaide cannot commit to a particular plotline and so vacillates between all of them to force her novel forward. I think if you are going to embrace this style of plot journey, the author needs to own it. And by own it I mean shout-it-from-the-Beverly-Hills-rooftops-á-la-Jackie-Collins.

To be fair the novel is not badly written; I think it navigates the soapie/ literary borderland a little too uncomfortably. Going into the Summer hols however, it may be worth a squiz. If nothing else, Adelaide’s old mate intertextuality returns (Wuthering Heights is still on my to read list) and I’m always looking for an excuse to drink!

The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide

As an undergrad my very important Arts degree let me to a plethora of insightful yet unusable information that renders me the smartest and most useless person in the room simultaneously. Give me a piece of popular culture and I will give you an intertextual reference point. It’s my dinner party trick (form an orderly queue people).

Feeling particularly maudlin one recent lazy weekend, I picked up The Household’s Guide to Dying. There are an inordinate number of tomes that use death as both protagonist and plot device in past, present and future tenses – The Lovely Bones (told from the perspective of a dead girl); The Book Thief (the narrator is death itself); The Fault in Our Stars (the dying). Each of these, while tear-inducing, are incredibly entertaining and at times reaffirming. Death is a weighty subject (obviously) but done well and with a minutia of respect, can set the undertone of a truly great novel. However, rather than a nuanced reverence for the reader, what I was confronted with was a trip down intertextual lane. All my undergrad memories came flooding back like a tsunami of tired clichés.

Intertextuality sounds thinky and terribly academic but the premise is really quite simple. From John Fowles’ use of Shakespeare in The Collector to the deconstruction of 2004 film Bride and Prejudice against Jane Austen’s famous tome, there is an epidemic of intertextuality in popular culture. So I was somewhat (perhaps haughtily) bemused through the pages of this book; it really was a host to the largest intertextual dinner party on record. A warm an inviting host of course, but one that had probably over-catered so the once-crisp vegetables stay limp and untouched by the end of the novel.

If I commenced an intertextual drinking game I would have turned into Bill Sikes by the 50th page (Bill Sikes, Oliver Twist. Drink!).

Sylvia Plath

John Donne

Hamlet

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Catcher in the Rye

Keats

Tennyson

Mrs Isabella Beeton

Drink, drink drink!

This novel is incredibly technical and correct as  a piece of creative writing but has dearth emotion (ok maybe a little at the end). Adelaide started with an interesting enough premise but the tale became veiled in the author’s need to demonstrate her breadth of literary knowledge. It had a lot of teach but not a lot of feel.

It may be better served by the title The Household Guide to Killing.

Killing Me Softly. Drink!

Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park

The Sydney Writers Festival came and went once again in its usual May glory. I attended a couple of events and returned feeling invigorated and motivated: there are many more downloads on my Kindle than there were at the start of the festival. It reminded me of my very first reader event many years ago. I was in primary school and my mother took me to see the voice of my Sydney childhood, Ruth Park, at the local library. While the glistening waves of Walsh Bay were the backdrop of the latest Sydney Writers Festival, the lacklustre plastic shelves of suburbia thrilled my 8 year old self as I stood metres away from a real author. That feeling hasn’t left me but I think that event, the Ruth Park event, will always be remembered as my first and with it, maintains a slight hint of magic.

Ruth Park wrote what I believe is one of the quintessential Australian novels, The Harp in the South. First published in 1948 and never out of print, it tells the tale of a Catholic Irish Australian family living in the inner city suburb of Surry Hills which was at that time housed the poorest of the poor. I loved this novel (it is actually part of a trilogy) and devoured it with gusto several times. I hope to return to it again soon when my Sydney Writers Festival stack becomes more manageable. But one of Park’s novels that I did not read for reasons that escape me now is her seminal Playing Beatie Bow.

I have to admit it was with trepidation that I picked up Playing Beatie Bow from the shelf. Not unlike To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies, I was worried that I had left my reading too late. It features protagonist Abigail Kirk, a fourteen year old girl, whose adventures are the stuff of magical realism and not my usual historical fiction fare. But this novel is truly magical and the distant absence of my adolescence was no barrier to my absolute and exquisite thrill in devouring this tale.

There are some writers who even though they are writing for a younger audience, seem to transcend age barriers. JK Rowling and Roald Dahl immediately spring to mind; their prose is clever and interesting enough to be married with a plot of wild fantasy that captures the imagination of adults and children alike. Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow is absolutely on par with these authors. Intelligent and gripping, this novel is a fun read with a little bit of nostalgia.