Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

There is a well-worn expression that asserts that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. For me, a perennial loyalist, this painful adage is brutal in the transient honesty is foretells. Gently folded across the reason/season borderland, the tyranny of distance can be a cruel mistress. Many of us have suffered the loss of one who moves away. The distance can be as far-reaching as Spain or as close as Hobart, but the jabs of grief are frequent enough to be uncomfortably paralysing.

I recently lost a dear friend to geography’s greedy clutches. While the sudden departure was swift and unexpected, the emotional aftermath was clumsy, confusing and confronting. Time will be the great antidote; the simple, and yet only inoculation against the painful ennui of the gaping hole of loss. But those of us left behind are only one part of this dichotomy. Within the binary union, there also exists the one who leaves. They depart our shores for a reason, a season or a lifetime.

Brooklyn is the story of the one who leaves.  Eilis, a young woman unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, sets sail for the promises of the holy land: NEW YORK CITY. Eilis had no immediate desire to depart her motherland. Family and circumstance prescribe the vaccination against poverty and intergenerational languor. She tries, she strives and she thrives (mostly) in her quest to build her life in the globe’s toughest and most unforgiving city.

Eilis’ experiences are blanketed by the female experience. Her circumstances are uniquely felt because of her gender and, in many way, transcend the period in which this novel is set. I once overheard a mother say to her daughter, ‘always earn your own money, that way you’ll have choices’. This is indeed true. The feminisation of poverty is as omnipresent in 1950s Ireland and New York as it is today.

Tobin has a bonsai-quality with emotion and yet the haunting restraint is powerful. Eilis’ adventures are unsophisticated, simple and yet profound in their meaning. Her desire to move forward is inhibited only by the clutches of the past and bygone, guilt-imposed responsibilities.

So to those of you who leave, we wish you well and may only the best things come to you.

For those of us left behind, for whom the gaping hole will never be quite filled even as it does grow smaller, um, f*ck you geography.

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Recently a dear friend told me some rather startling health news. Shocking in fact. So I reacted in the manner of a typically supportive, caring and compassionate friend: I burst into rivers-of-snot-running-breath-wheezing tears immediately compelling my illness-riddled mate into consoling me!!! I mean. WHO. AM. I.???

It got me thinking about the nuances of friendship. Unlike a family member where a contract is defined by blood, or a spouse where a union is bound by marriage, friendship is a tenuous and precarious attachment with little certainty but oh so much exquisite and inimitable joy. A friendship is free but it is not cheap. For all its peerless rewards (and they are countless), there is a fragility and uncertainty that shrouds it in a film of instability and flimsiness.

Since I was mired in my own selfish grief, I needed something to read that could traverse the grief/ friendship borderland. I needed a tale about imperfect friendship, longing, pain with a dash of hyperbolic tragedy. You know, something to accompany me in my self-invited pity party for one.

Given my home address does not include the suburb “Under Rock”, the Ferrante novels have been on my radar for some time now. To be honest, I was concerned they would suffer from the “Dan Brown” effect: everybody reading them but they are kinda just meh. I was happily surprised. My Brilliant Friend was EXACTLY what I wanted and needed.

Set against a backdrop of the mean streets of Naples two deliciously flawed and confused girls rely on each other as they negotiate the swings and arrows of growing up in 1950s Italy. Elena and Lila represent any of us as we navigate childhood to adulthood. While their circumstances may be unique, the growing pains they experience are universal and form the foundations of so many friendships, past and present. Sometimes we connect with people through circumstance and the relationship may last due to convenience. But always, friendships are looked upon in bewildered and stupendous awe for their capacity to transcend the unexpected.

So to MY brilliant friend, you know you can always rely on me for a shoulder to cry on. Hmm, actually, I’ll cry on yours. Call it even buddy?

The Girls by Emma Cline

My friend T once dated a guy who was a Program Manager at the History Channel. I mean, come ooon. Super cool job and super cool guy. There was no end to the supply of rare and fascinating docos and films that would circulate our cohort at any given time. I think I mourned their break-up more than they did. One particular flick that Mr H Channel introduced me to was “Valley of the Dolls” and with that unforgettable introduction came the irrepressible Sharon Tate. In an era pre Botox, fillers and microdermabrasion, this woman was stunning. STUNNING. And natural (I think). But more intriguing than her superficial beauty is the story of her murder and her connection to Charles Manson. My knowledge of Manson and his cult is limited to the education received on a couple of E True Hollywood Stories and the occasional article in WHO magazine. But nonetheless the murder of a very pregnant Mrs Polanski (I know – married to that director too!), has been an endless source of fascination and intrigue over the years.

Which brings me to The Girls. Set in the Summer of 1967, The Girls is brimming with the free love and experimental ethos of the era. Narrated by (a now adult) Evie, the novel is as much a coming of age exploration and the decline of the nuclear family as it is an homage to the trappings of the cult of Manson. The writing is good. Very good. The tale is engaging. Incredibly so. But, as the title suggests, the focus of this piece of historical fiction was not on Mason himself but the girls and women around him. That’s fine, even refreshing. But I would have loved a little more exploration as to why this figure was so seductive and beguiling. Or perhaps that’s the crux of Emma Cline’s point. To follow blindly with no rhyme or reason is the cult leader’s true power of enchantment.

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 Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I am not one for reading self-help books or books that purport to be biographies with a distinct psychospeak edge. With a literary landscape rich with fiction, genuine biography, history and poetry, I simply cannot find the time to indulge in the Anthony Robbins of the book world. Others may disagree with me. There is of course a plethora of books within this genre but to me, I’d rather indulge in the new Ishiguro or the old Isherwood before I attempted to ‘Unleash the Power Within’ (I presume that’s a title!).

Despite the fact that my dear friend Rebecca* purchased several copies of Eat, Pray, Love to share with our gal pal circle, my copy has collected dust year after year waiting until I feel enough time has passed that I can relocate the former tree to the recycling bin. Harsh, I know.

So when a colleague recommended Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things, sceptical barely scratched the surface. I started to imagine having to write my signature daily on all my possessions as some sort of positive affirmation to lead myself towards my greatest life. Fortunately, I was completely wrong.

The Signature of All Things is a novel (yay!); even better, a novel of historical fiction (double yay!). It is told in five parts and for the majority, follows the life of Alma Whittaker, an intelligent woman with a passion for science and cerebral pursuits. She is neither ugly nor attractive and is somewhat isolated both due to her parent’s enormous wealth and by the small size of her family. While Alma’s life was interesting enough, it was part one that focused on the life of her father, Henry Whittaker that I found to be the most captivating. Henry grows up poor to hard working parents and soon finds himself travelling the barely-discovered world at the behest of infamous botanist Joseph Banks.

Henry becomes a self-made titan; an entrepreneur of the ages. What he lacks in intellect he more than ameliorates with fortitude and common sense. He is hard and cold at times, but unrelentingly passionate and driven, particularly when it comes to his daughter Alma.

I recently read that Alma Whittaker is a one of the all-time strong female protagonists in literature so I feel like a bad feminist (thanks Roxanne Gay!) when I find myself more intrigued by Henry’s story than Alma’s. I think it is because while Gilbert does indeed equip Alma with the fortitude and curiosity of a trail-blazer, she denigrates this by Alma’s incessant sexual needs that dominate the book in parts and become more tedious through the journey of the novel. It seems, that for Gilbert, Alma cannot stand alone as a strong and intelligent women. Alma has to be cut down by her sexual yearnings that are naïve, boring and add nothing to an otherwise good yarn.

This book has interesting moments and even highlights of greatness. I think it suffers from being a little too long, or perhaps a little too long exploring parts that could be better left alone (double entre intended).

* name has been changed to protect my recycling bin

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.

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.