I’ve been thinking about the film Sliding Doors a lot lately. I mean, ALL THE FRICKING TIME. As I traverse my “Sex and the City” years with all the complicated and adult-y swings and arrows, it has given me cause to reflect on all the choices I have made in my life; conscious or otherwise. While I am coming out of my mousy-brown-dowdy phase, I’m not quite peroxide-pixie-cut-start-my-own-PR-firm Helen Quilley.
*cut to Gwyneth*
Beside Myself is a little sliding doors with a twist. A set of twins, one good, one not-so, swap clothes and personalities for an afternoon in order to trick those nearest and dearest. This seemingly innocuous hoax results in life-altering repercussions as the bad twin turned good, refuses to return to her original self. The original good twin is forced to fill the role of bad, despite all protestations.
This novel is multi-faceted and full of meaning; more so than it appears at first glance. It speaks to how the presentation and representation of ourselves in everyday life can define us despite who we may actually be. I am reminded of the seminal sociologist Erving Goffman who wrote (and I’m paraphrasing/ plagiarising):
When an individual plays a part, he/she requests observers take seriously the impression that is fostered before them and believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes they appear to possess.
You tell ‘em Goffman. Beside Myself is as much about a set of twins as it is about the duality of our own personalities. Once we present or represent ourselves in a certain way, it becomes a challenge to manifest an alternate, no matter how desired.
So there may be no pixie cut for me, nor a self-run PR firm. But there may, just may, be a little Monty Python.
When I was about 7 or 8, I was given an audio book (ON CASSETTE!) to listen to as I drifted into my blissful slumber. It was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and a rather glorious introduction to his social commentary on the Victorian era. The tape was specifically targeted at children so the narrator’s accents were richly exaggerated and bewitching. I played this tape too many times to count; a couple of years later it became irreparably damaged from over-love.
I don’t really listen to audio books now as I think that I am not really ‘reading’. It feels like I’m cheating my own intellect. But given my partiality to the modern podcast, I feel any moment now there is a book waiting to be listened to.
The Bricks That Built The Houses. I have no idea if an audio book exists of this tale but if there does, run don’t walk. The South London accent floods every pore of this book and it is the richer for it. There is no other way to read it than with the thick working class acoustic of Blighty. It’s glorious.
Protagonist Becky Darke is an aimless millennial. The child of a convicted former politician father and an overwhelmed and manic mother, a life less ordinary was preordained. However, it is through her fumbled meanderings that the aimless and ineffectual become extraordinary and compelling.
Read it with an accent out loud and proud. You won’t regret it.
“he kept shtum about the fact that he was sent down for fraud”
be or become quiet and non-communicative.
“you start to say something and then just when it’s getting interesting you shtum up”
This week I travelled interstate for work. It was a 6:00am domestic flight bereft of the trimmings of my usual personal travel. For me an airport usually signifies the anticipation of new lands far and wide… with a teensy bit of shopping on the side. Not so my most recent voyage. But there is one ritual I managed to maintain, and that is my habitual visit to the airport bookshop. I love a bookshop at the best of times; the boundless titles, the endless possibility. An airport bookstore in particular provides a special nuance due to the audience – the transient in search of a tale to while away long plane rides and extended beach stays. The airport bookstore must cater to a selective and yet broad clientele.
On this particular journey, I happened upon Shtum, a title I had not seen in any other store to date nor read about in any review. It stayed in the back of my mind and when I saw the cover again on my return journey home, I knew it couldn’t go unread. THANK YOU airport bookshop. Shtum is exquisite Read in one sitting on a rainy (torrential) winter’s day, Shtum pulled at my heart in all the right places. Ostensibly the story of three generations of men living under the one roof, the circumstances that brought them together at a particular moment in time is truly heart-wrenching. Shtum’s success is the marriage of the feckless, the futile and the forthright in a combination that is incredibly powerful.
I cannot keep shtum about it. Do yourself a favour. Rainy day optional.
One of my neighbours has recently had an accident that has left him in a wheelchair. He is limited in his movements but can still be found zipping around the streets of the ‘hood in his temporary transportation. He has a young daughter who beams from her father’s lap as she too hitches a ride on this robust steed. Clearly my neighbour is unperturbed during the convalescence of his short-lived condition. This display is refreshing but knowing it is passing most likely adds to his good humour and irreverence. I must admit I chuckle to myself as he rockets past me with a thumbs up. Whatever circumstances have led to his current condition; they have not left any permanent or long-lasting damage. He may be dipping his toe in the pool of incapacitation but he is soon to be swimming in an ocean of physical competency.
The condition of protagonist Will Traynor is anything but temporary. A cruel and all-encompassing accident has left the former London investment banker/ adrenaline junkie a quadriplegic with limited movement in one arm and boundless pessimism in spirit. He is cynical, bitter and laments for his former life.
Louisa Clark has been sent in to assist the impassive Will. At 26 years old she is uneducated, unskilled, unmotivated and frankly, uninterested. She is also infuriatingly myopic in her outlook having seen dearth of the universe beyond her small English village. However, there is something in Louisa’s fecklessness that is curiously beguiling. Her clumsy presentation and heart-on-her-sleeve outlook is refreshingly simplistic and honest. She demands little from the world and is equally undemanding of it.
This novel is beyond moving. I was weeping 30 minutes after I have finished the last page and was still sifting through a fog the day after. So I am equally impressed and suppressed by Moyes’ novel. There is indeed something about this tale that loiters just beyond consciousness. Not quite a shadow and not quite a scarf, this novel wraps itself around the deepest echelons of your heart.
Here in Sydney we are on the cusp of spring. The smell of jasmine in August reveals the faintest hint that the new season is around the corner. The weather is cool and the early mornings are still dark but the reassuring scent of the end of winter reveals itself like a cheeky peeping Tom. For the uninitiated this shifting of the season can be wrought with hypocrisy. The sun is bright but unwarming; the rain is warm but volatile. Reading Nancy Mitford always reminds me of this time of year. Her novels are pointed and clever with the comforting edge of spring but also far too intelligent to be foppish.
Author Zoe Heller (her tome The Believers is one definitely worth the indulgence of a lazy Sunday afternoon) describes ardent readers of Mitford as filled with a ‘dotty passion’. I have to admit that I too am smitten by Mitford’s idiosyncratic style. The Pursuit of Love is glorious. It is deliciously witty and wickedly sharp. Finding love in the eccentric and privileged world of Mitford’s protagonists drives the delicate plot of this novel.
I don’t want to say too much about the narrative of this tale. Enchanting and impeccable, it is a book worth exploring without any preconceived notions of the kaleidoscope of characters. The Radlett family are mad enough to be interesting but also authentic enough to feel like you could live among them. Spring into Mitford. You’ll be bewitched by her charm.
This year I have signed up for the City 2 Surf for the first time. For non-Aussies, the City 2 Surf is an annual community run, 14.6km no less, that takes place every winter. As the name suggests the course commences in the Sydney CBD and finishes in iconic Bondi Beach. It is long, hilly and by all accounts, pretty gruelling. I hope to complete the race in 80 minutes. In my day job, I work with a seasoned City 2 Surfer who has raced it sub 50 mins. Several times. When I commented that he could finish the race and still have time to run back and collect me he remarked, “I’m a runner not a body lifter”. Ouch.
And so it is with some novels. As a reader you want to be carried, to be lifted across the line. That’s not to say that the stories have to be without complexity but there is something satisfying with letting a book support you tirelessly through the journey of its plot. I don’t want to be bored; quite the opposite. I always demand a tale pack a punch and entertain me in a satisfying and unconfused manner.
The Girl on the Train is one such novel. Comparable to Before I Go To Sleep and Gone Girl, it is deliciously gripping and incredibly suspenseful. Told from the perspective of three protagonists – all women and all inextricably linked under extraordinary circumstances – this multifaceted thriller is hauntingly overlayed with a film of melancholy. Rachel, the first narrator and the most prolific is utterly flawed but incredibly likable. She is self-destructive as she clobbers her way through her somewhat pathetic life entirely designed by her own tedious and repetitive mistakes. But Rachel is more than just her flaws. She is intelligent and curious and not at all cruel. She is, as it turns out, only unkind to herself. She is under the spell of her addiction but has not yet been completely swallowed by it. The road to redemption falls achingly close but is then snatched away time after time as Rachel’s injurious decisions guide her away from peace.
This novel also creates some fascinating insights about modern relationships, more specifically, modern marriages. I once recall Charlotte (you know, the Sex and the City Charlotte) openly question ‘how well do we really know the people we sleep with?’. In many ways the relationships in this novel are the manifestation of that enquiry. Secrets, lies, paranoia and narcissism shroud the couples as they descend from blissful newly-wed joy to the mundane reality of long-term love. It seems that the easy part of any relationship is telling someone you love them. It’s the stuff that comes later that makes the journey of matrimony demanding. Behind the banality of suburbia, the true nature of human interaction is revealed.
I read this novel on a rainy Sunday afternoon and the time could not have been better spent. The languid act of being carried has never been so rewarding.
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.