Review: Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool in The Australian

summer houseSummer House is a dark satire, scalpel-sharp and more cohesive than The Dinner, with a more complex unreliable narrator, a compelling structure, and a sutured but festering wound of themes.’

Read my review of Dutch author Herman Koch’s disturbing novel Summer House with Swimming Pool here.

I also reviewed his previous novel, The Dinner, for The Australian.

Review: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame in Readings Monthly

owls do cryI reviewed Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame (released with a new foreword by Margaret Drabble in the Text Classics series) for Readings Monthly, with the book still ringing in my head (hence the style of the review). When I read Frame I am reminded, too, that a writer might deliberately eschew grammar rules, in aid of rhythm or mood (and that’s the only nod I’ll give on here to something that happened last week). Here’s an extract:

‘[Frame] pierced the world with her eyes and her senses and we’ll always have the treasure, like this, her first novel, sitting among the best modern novels, so sharp and vivid a voice, so sure so early on, despite the hurt and horror of what she had already been through; a writer and a poet waiting always inside her (and here now) in the place of treasures and darkness, with her own sense of punctuating space, her own way of seeing how the world is like the body and how the body contains a torrent of images and worlds of associated sensations…’

Read the rest here. And then go and buy it (and everything else by Janet Frame).

Detachment, surfaces, excess: No Limit by Holly Childs

No LimitHologram is a new venture publishing novellas by writers under 30. Hologram is associated with Express Media, a fantastic organisation that provides support and development opportunities for young Australians in writing and media.

The first book to be published by Hologram is No Limit, by Holly Childs. It’s about Ash, who is stuck in Auckland due to a volcano, or the apocalypse—she’s not sure. Ash is seeking her cousin Haydn but then is dragged in aimless directions, encountering people and places. This book is all detachment, surfaces and excess: pop culture references, superficial nostalgia, technology, and falling quickly for one another. There’s a dissociative aspect, between the characters’ experiences and reality: one character Skypes her sister while the sister simultaneously uploads screenshots from the conversation to tumblr, without using her hands. The characters rave during the apocalypse, making comments about clothes and shoes, movies, tech. This could be symbolic of a detached interplay of online and offline worlds, connected and disconnected selves.

The action in No Limit is quite banal, there’s no ‘plot’ per se, and the characters’ motivations are faddish, shifting (no doubt deliberate and conceptual, though as a reader it takes effort to care about what might happen). The novel’s strength lies in Holly Childs’ intense novel-world (reflective of contemporary Gen Y and Millennial experience), which is completely self-contained. All metaphors and similes are relevant:

Haydn is looking right into her eyes, ‘When I came, my cum was green. Like bright green.’ His lip trembles. ‘Like Gak.’

The language is at times overwhelming, in the sense that excess information is overwhelming, like having too many tabs open. And so I think this, too, is deliberate—this onslaught—though it could alienate some readers.

Texts that are name-checked reflect the tone of the novella (retro-futurish), such as Tank Girl and Hackers, and if you like William Gibson or Bret Easton Ellis you might also want to pick this up.

I’ll be publishing a review of the second Hologram title, Elisabeth Murray’s The Loud Earth, in May.

Profits of Doom by Antony Loewenstein

Profits of DoomMelbourne University Publishing
9780522858822 (paperback)
9780522864366 (ebook)
August 2013

In Profits of Doom, Antony Loewenstein investigates the effects of predatory, vulture or disaster capitalism on individuals, communities, the environment, and future prospects of entire countries. Loewenstein’s work is powerful because he goes to Afghanistan, Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea, and other places ravaged by greed, corruption, complacency, and misdirected aid. He takes us there, and he talks to people at all levels, unafraid to present us with opinions that contradict his own (though reinforcing his own argument effortlessly through the picture he paints of the damage done).

In Australia, he visits detention centres, exploring the effects (on the detainees, the staff, and the wider community) of privatisation, revealing the fact that companies with dodgy track records are still given contracts. To avoid fines, there is also a culture of dishonesty: ‘… cover-ups of breaches [such as incidences of abuse] are routine and both tolerated and implicitly supported by the highest echelons of the Serco [company] hierarchy’. Loewenstein discovers a general ignorance of asylum seekers’ rights in order to maximise profits (ie. drawn-out processing times), and a dehumanisation of asylum seekers who, at the top, are referred to as ‘products’.

In Papua New Guinea Loewenstein visits ‘an abandoned wasteland’, Bouganville, where there are talks to reopen the mine which caused so much strife and continues to effect the environment. Disaster capitalism, as Loewenstein describes it in regards to PNG, is predatory corporations supported by foreign aid payments and tax concessions, insulated from media and political scrutiny, preventing a country from reaching true independence. In another village, Loewenstein hears of women selling their bodies for food because the company that has moved in has stopped them from fishing.

In Afghanistan Loewenstein looks at the local war economy, investigating private security personnel—their role in the conflict, how the officials see it and how the locals do.

In Haiti Loewenstein finds large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince still in pieces after the 2010 earthquake, and provides many examples of ‘canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of disaster, looking for business opportunities’. For those who argue in favour of job creation when multinationals move in, Loewenstein has found that it’s more likely that cheap, exploitative labour is the effect, in vulnerable areas, tying locals to an (often restricting, often polluting) corporation, removing other chances of sustainable growth in a community.

Loewenstein uncovered an unfortunate structural failure where many big NGOs (not all, there are some great examples of on-the-ground charities working with locals in the book) act as conduits to ensure Western business interests.

Profits of Doom provides essential, eye-opening information about systems of exploitative capitalism, how they operate, who profits, and the effects on the ground. It’s written in an accessible, engaging style, with quotes from people at all levels, and Loewenstein’s first-hand observations and experiences. I was a big fan of his 2008 book The Blogging Revolution, and will continue to read the work of a journalist whose concerns are undeniably relevant, who investigates and presents cases with care, rigour, and verve.

Antony Loewenstein’s website/blog is always a great source of information on current events.

Loewenstein will also be appearing at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.

The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble

The Waterfall Margaret DrabbleJane has just has her second child. She is recovering in bed in her too-warm room, dealing with complex feelings of isolation (experiencing both loneliness and a desire to be left alone). Her husband is gone. Her cousin Lucy and her husband James begin to drop in to look after Jane and keep her company.

James begins to stay overnight, and an intense passion develops between Jane and James in the confines of the room. Jane, in falling for James, is ‘drowned in a willing sea’. Much of her language around this affair is self-destructive; Jane is aware that she is becoming submissive, becoming ‘merely a woman’, wondering if the previous 28 years (of independence, perhaps, of being a writer) will emerge again at some point, to ‘take their revenge’. The husband had hit her, which she only mentions briefly—had slammed her head against a wall—and yet she blames herself for his leaving. So, overlaying the self-destructiveness, and submission, there is a strong current of guilt. This is a powerful read, and I imagine it would have been even more so in 1969, when it was first released.

The Waterfall shows its postmodern vintage (in a good way) through a mix of third person and unreliable first person narration: the story of Jane, the bed, the baby, and James and his fast car is told in (quite intimate) third person, and then Jane makes confessions or fills in gaps in first person. She tells us about the blood she hadn’t been able to mention, or the other people at the edges of their lives. She is a melancholy character, simultaneously sedate and ardent. The book is literary, psychological, concerned with inner states, and the betrayal of the external. At one point near the beginning, Jane is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and ‘she wondered how they all managed it, how they manage to keep alive, when life was so difficult’.

When she and James dare to take their affair out into the world, there are consequences, as she had supposed there would be.

I like the way people talk in this novel, too: emotional but casual and intellectual, delivered, you can imagine, like in a Godard film.

‘I’m very sympathetic towards that kind of madness.’

There are also many allusions and references to literary characters and writers’ lives, adding a layer to the narrative, believable in the context of the character’s writerliness. Regarding her guilt about sex, Jane wonders if perhaps she’ll go mad with it, like Sue Brideshead or Maggie Tulliver. ‘Those fictitious heroines, how they haunt me.’

I’m looking forward to familiarising myself with much more of Margaret Drabble’s oeuvre.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

LuminariesThe Luminaries
Eleanor Catton

Little, Brown
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize

I’ve woken up around 4am the past couple of nights thinking about this book. My thoughts on it aren’t final but this is a space where conversations happen, and I need to talk.

The Luminaries is an engaging page-turner, a mystery set in a 19th Century New Zealand gold town. It’s a successful pastiche of the Victorian novel, with omniscient narration (informing and withholding from the reader at will; describing the physical appearance and temperament of characters in detail). The Luminaries is also an intellectual feat, due to its engagement with the astrological calendar and with each chapter being half the length of the one previous.

It begins with Walter Moody, interrupting a private meeting of twelve men at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika. He becomes the listener for their combined tale, involving death, gold, prostitution, mistaken identities, shipping crates, opium, and elements that will remain mysterious (due to an implied element of the fantastical) at the book’s end. The second half of the book details events and incidents that have unfolded after the knowledge gained at the Crown meeting, gives us more insight into the peripheral (or ‘planetary’) characters involved, and immerses the reader in the original events, from a different point of view.

I’m a big fan of Catton’s book The Rehearsal and I found The Luminaries a delightful, fast-paced read. Having read her two (very different) books I have so much admiration for Catton’s intellect, ambition, range and depth. The details of Hokitika and the range of fascinating (and often nasty) characters reminded me of watching a season of Deadwood. I wondered if at the end I had read it too quickly, though, as I wasn’t sure whether I’d missed one crucial ‘nugget’ of information, or whether it was supposed to be slightly open-ended; that the reader was supposed to draw their own final conclusion from the information given. I will have to read it again, as I know the whole first section will become richer after the perspectives gained in the rest of the book, particularly regarding Anna Wetherell (of the ‘old profession’) and boy wonder Emery Staines. I think there is also a lot more to think about in regards to the Chinese goldsmith Quee Long.

I’d love to discuss the book, if you’ve read it, but let’s mark any spoilery comments so those yet to experience The Luminaries know to avoid them… And I’m still travelling, so do forgive me if I end up taking a little while to reply.

Maria Takolander’s The Double

The Double Maria Takolander9781922079763
Text Publishing 
August 2013

One of the best contemporary short story collections I’ve read, Takolander’s fictions are intellectual, dark, strange and often dystopian. The tone is of casual realism, but what’s described is beyond that: fantastical, nightmarish or just off; my favourite kind of fiction. If you like Kafka or Beckett, or MJ Hyland for that matter, you’ll like Takolander; or if you find meaninglessness meaningful. Or if you like your imagery as dark crystals:

a woman remembering her brothers’ ‘white bodies shatter the black mirror of the lake. Immediately they are sucked below’ (from ‘The Double’).

Objects that speak to a man, like a strap that says ‘hang on’ and doors that say ‘out you get’ (in ‘The Obscene Bird of Night’).

A man weeping in a diner as a woman called Svetlana cuts his steak. A dog outside keeps barking. And starlings are ‘[s]weeping through the insects. Their noise as shrill as panic. Their tiny hearts like ticking bombs’ (from ‘Three Sisters’).

The stories don’t seem to say ‘can you imagine?’ but ‘somewhere this all happens’.

The stories in the first part all have the names of books. In ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ men are eaten away by desires. But what is the student’s mother fading from? Violent masculine scrutiny? This realist story could be the darkest of all.

There’s an element of satire in the final pieces which all concern a mythical text and poet. They revolve around people associated with the study and care-taking of words: academics, a librarian, judge of a poetry competition (who suffers the severe effects of a concrete poem).

At the heart of these (and carried through the collection) is some nod to ambition: it’s displayed as a straw-sucked egg in the face of all the words already out there, and all the nothing.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

physick bookAt the moment I’m reading fiction set in the C19th, but I’m also generally reading historical fiction (particularly books set partly in the present/partly in the past) for research reasons. This one I read as part of a wonderful MOOC I’m doing on historical fiction through the University of Virginia. Any other recommendations are welcome.

Connie is looking for a unique primary source on which to base her PhD research when she is given the task of cleaning out her grandmother’s house. She comes across the name ‘Deliverance Dane’, written on a note curled up in a key in an old bible, and this sets her on paths of historical and personal discovery.

The book is set mainly in the 1990s, in Connie’s time, but also reveals the story of Deliverance Dane, at the time of the Salem witch trials, and tracks the reverberations of accusations of witchcraft through successive generations. The author is concerned with the idea of how real magic was to people in New England, and explores this in a fantastical sense by introducing the possibility of magic in the present.

This is a fun book, in the vein of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (though not as layered as that book). Issues of gender (in relation to the accusation of women as witches) are raised, but never given much depth, as the novel also becomes a typical love story. It’s a page-turner, but the plot developments are often predictable, and while the historical detail is fascinating, it is often inserted into the story rather clumsily. The book is also quite plainly written.

All that said, I did enjoy it, and I’d recommend it as a light (but not too light) read. I’m finding more and more that I enjoy the combination of a female protagonist, historical detail, and a hint of magic. A more successful book containing these elements, in my opinion, is Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens.

Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl

This post is adapted from my speech for the Castlemaine launch of Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl.

kirsten_krauth_just_a_girlThere are three main characters in Kirsten Krauth’s excellent, powerful and confronting debut novel just_a_girl: teenage Layla, her mother Margot and a lonely Japanese man, Tadashi.

As someone who had the internet at Layla’s age—14—I would also say her experience as rendered in the novel is incredibly accurate. She acts out, though she’s never completely sure what she is acting out against. And that’s because it’s a conglomerate of issues, including emptiness and silence, despite all the chatter. She senses that there’s something wrong with elements of the social world around her that aren’t addressed or talked about, though she plays with, and often rejects, certain ideas and categories, particularly in terms of sexuality. Her knowledge and discoveries around sex are part curiosity, partly to do with a cultural norm of performativity, and partly the enactment of a struggle for both power and control. She is a questioning, self-aware, desiring individual, who is grappling for something firm and good to hold onto in a pretty damn confusing world.

Meanwhile, her mother Margot exists in a kind of fog. We’re sympathetic to her because she obviously has suffered, and still suffers from depression. But she has turned to God. And her chapters in the novel are heartbreaking because we know that emptiness, and something frightening, lies waiting for her.

Tadashi is a counterpoint to Layla and Margot’s world. He is the commuter you see on the train, but what you don’t know is that in his large suitcase is a life-size doll. Tadashi can’t connect, or perhaps doesn’t even see it as an option, because buying a companion is easy enough to do. His story is layered in a stimulating way. On the one hand, he is portrayed as being warm and caring, such as when he saves a bogong moth in a train carriage. On the other hand, there’s a disturbing metaphor of objectification in his story, which echoes some of the actions of male characters in the story threads of Layla and Margot. He has literally replaced a flesh-and-blood woman with a doll who keeps quiet and is available whenever he needs her. She is pretty and poses the way he wants her to. There are parallels with the sex video that Layla makes for Mr C, an older man, and in her relations with her 18-year-old boyfriend, and also in the harassment she suffers—and never reports—from her boss. In the first instance Layla is performing for Mr C, literally, posed in a way she thinks he would like. Her 18-year-old boyfriend certainly treats her objectively, not respecting her own desire, and also practically ignoring her when they watch porn together. (As a side note: I have so much respect for the way Kirsten writes these scenes, it’s a fact that both teenage girls and boys are exposed to hardcore porn these days and there are so many possible effects, which Kirsten explores while always respecting a 14-year-old’s ability to know and feel true sexual desire.) And the harassment of Layla’s boss is most disturbing because with this act Layla’s agency is removed. The fact she doesn’t report it tells us that society has told her that this is how men behave, that she exists for them to look at and masturbate over. And this is something she tries to take ownership of, and incorporate into her grappling for power or control, at other times in the novel.

There’s also the theme of coldness and cruelty, and of being cruelly abandoned. All of the characters experience this realistically but also in an imagined or exaggerated way. It’s another thing that Layla tries to own or reclaim, unfortunately adding to this feeling of abandonment in Margot, her mother. But cruelty doesn’t suit Layla and you very much sense that it’s just part of her strategy for coping, for holding onto some semblance of control.

The writing itself is so intuitive, suitable for each character and the story.

just_a_girl is a complex and timely novel, the first book by a strong writer who is not afraid to go to honest, dark places. If you’ve read Kirsten’s blog, too, you’ll know she has so much to offer. What she writes always has such a depth of thought, and is executed with talent, thoughtfulness, and care.