Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Having recently signed myself up to another 4.5 years of study (why, why?), I am finding it increasingly difficult to muster the time or energy for leisurely fiction. Between reading text books, case judgments and journal articles, there ain’t a whole lotta time for reading for pleasure. I need to redress the balance because the restorative powers of a great piece of lit cannot be overstated. A lack of time and energy heightens impatience and irritation with the coveted tome. I no longer have the tolerance for a slow and tedious entree. If the author cannot beguile me in the first chapter, I’m out.

Thank you Noah Hawley for answering my demands. Hawley is an American film and television writer and producer (think the TV adaptation of Fargo) and his writing is blissfully sharp and engaging. Every sentence has purpose. Every. Single. Sentence. There are no unnecessary segues or red herrings: it’s all about the plot. And while the prose is uncomplicated, it is not guileless or meek. Hawley’s seemingly effortless text masks a sophisticated structure.

Not-so spoiler alert: the light plane crashes into the ocean and passengers and crew do not survive. What it terrorism? Pilot error? The weather? Such is Hawley’s manipulation, there are several times I was led to believe that perhaps the fated plane would indeed continue to its set destination and passengers and crew would return to their complicated lives unscathed. What Hawley brilliantly creates is a superb character study that is a little bit voyeur with a big serving of entertainment.

My one regret is that I read this tale perhaps a little too quickly and it was over, well, as fast a plane falling from the sky.


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.

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 House by The Lake by Thomas Harding

I have been going through an odd reading phase recently. I cannot seem to settle into a book and have started and not completed several. Those on my incomplete list include: Lost and Found by Brooke Davis; Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish; A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff (now a movie!). These novels all sit at varying stages of completion in my eReader or on my beside table. I was enjoying them all for the most part and I will finish them eventually. I just cannot get into a groove with these tomes and so they remain suspended in purgatory for now until I can release them from their dormant slumber.

The other day I walked passed my local bookshop (an all too regular occurrence) and a book with an innocuous cover and an innocuous title jumped out at me for an inexplicable reason. I didn’t even read the blurb at the back and went home to download it immediately. I have been bunkered down ever since. My seemingly dehydrated mind has absorbed this this book like the nourishment it has been wanting. This text is glorious.

As a former and current student of history (currently at Masters level), my devotion and adulation of history is well known and well documented. But I can suffer from familiarity fatigue – once I have intimate knowledge of a subject matter it is difficult to be excited unless there is a different angle or new evidence. Or both.

The House by The Lake is both. It reveals the history of Germany through, as the title suggests, a modest house by a lake a few kilometres outside Berlin. The intimacy of this approach combined with familiarity of German history makes for incredibly compelling reading. I have a keen interest in German history, particularly the interwar years of the Weimar Republic. From Eric Hobsbawn to Peter Gay; from Richard Vinen to Richard Bessel, if they wrote about Germany throughout the interwar years I have most likely read it and very likely written about it. There is not much new for me to uncover. Until now.

This history is personal. Part memoir, part historical investigation, Thomas Harding shares the story of his family’s connection to a (now) derelict cottage in Grosse Glienicke, a village 15 kilometres west of downtown Berlin. The lives of the various inhabitants unfold and reveal themselves through time. It is such a unique perspective, I defy anyone to read this book and not absolutely love it. Not unlike Anna Funder’s (also brilliant) Stasiland, this is a modern take on some known themes. Gripping, intriguing, melancholic in parts, this is simply a damn good yarn.

The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt)

In the criminal justice system, sexually based offences are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.

For those of you living under a rock (ok, maybe a bit harsh), the above is the narrated preamble to each episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. SVU is a procedural crime show currently in its seventeenth season which means I have been watching it a loooong time. It’s pretty gritty and explicit at times but can also be incredibly thought provoking and entertaining. It also helped me earn a high distinction in my undergrad (The Sociology of Media: how gender and computer games are reported in the media). And, you know, my couch law degree.

I have a funny relationship with crime drama. I won’t miss an episode of SVU and yet, I cannot sit through more than ten minutes of CSI (obviously there is a high diversity of names in the crime drama genre allowing only acronyms to grace our silver screens). I could call my viewership discerning, but really I am just fickle and difficult to entertain. So when The Whites came highly recommended to me, I was intrigued. I can enjoy the genre and needed something a little lighter after the brilliant intensity of A Little Life.

I’m torn.

I have to admit that it took me a while to get into the tone and pace of this novel, despite the excellent writing and intriguing plot. Perhaps there was a little too much macho posturing; a genre where the men are either law makers or law breakers and the women are supporting acts to villain or victim. Arguably, this gender dichotomy is simply reflexive of the sphere in which is represents. I don’t know. The closest I get to the edge of the criminal world is my Saturday morning spin class where one of my fellow spinners is a female detective (and can I just say how totally and utterly cool I think it is to know an actual real-life detective).

I didn’t not enjoy this tale and I know so many who really loved or will love it. But for now, I might stick with SVU. If nothing else because I’m kinda obsessed with the incomparable Detective/ Sergeant/ Lieutenant Olivia Benson.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

It was a serendipitous decision that A Little Life was the last book I read last year. Half-way through 2015, I had already gone through a couple of very painful and personal traumas including attendance at three funerals. I adopted the moniker “my long sh*tty year” in order to give explanation to too many circumstances beyond my control. While 2016, so far, has brought a sense of freshness and vitality, last year proved to me that life is nothing if not the ebb and flow of life’s incidents and accidents with everything in between. A Little Life is inherently a whole lotta ebb and a whole lotta flow. The lives of four college friends are captivatingly uncovered through an enchanting tale of life, loss and the power of circumstance.

Throughout this novel John Lennon’s moving ballad Hey Jude, most specifically the line “take a sad song and make it better” attached itself as soundtrack in my mind. Yanagihara’s protagonist Jude St Francis is the literary manifestation of a sad song. He has endured every possible obscenity and crushing episode of any fictional character I have read this side of Oliver Twist. In fact, good ole Ollie managed to journey through his troubles relatively unscathed. Jude’s sheer awful luck followed by an unrelenting spiral of misfortune is as brutal as it is unstoppable. Fate’s path will not be forfeited. And yet like Lennon’s filial tune, there are moments of light, excitement and yearning. There are long stretches of nostalgia and giddiness that burst through the murkiness.

This novel is devastatingly brilliant. The prose is superb and the plot journey is delicate and exquisite. The title itself, seemingly innocuous, is jarring when its relevance is understood. It is almost flippantly spoken and yet the meaning is so incredibly powerful and poignant, I actually had to pause reading for a couple of minutes while its significance absorbed through me like a scrounging parasite.

If not the best, then certainly one of the best novels I read last year. At over 700 pages A Little Life is a lotta book. But it is worth it. It can be slow and sad and difficult in parts which, to be fair, is not unlike the many human relationships we endure in our own little lives.