Books

20 June 2017

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, Australia, 1988


An unusual and beautiful book about life and love and the things that spur us on to do the things we do; it is also a book about the part that chance plays in our lives.


In mid-nineteenth century England, Oscar, acting on his own interpretation of signs, presents himself at the cold, inhospitable home of the Anglican minister, seeking a new life, which he feels is the life God has ordained for him. Later, as a minister, he travels to Australia in spite of his paralysing fear of water. By this time, however, he has been caught up in other games of chance – horses and cards – and fate throws him together with Lucinda, a young Australian heiress, who loves a game of cards and who is on her way back to Australia after unsuccessfully looking for a husband in England.

Their paths in the new, bustling, rough, dirty, loud colony keep crossing, neither of them fully aware of their attraction one for the other. Certain misfortunes befall Oscar, which inadvertently push him closer to Lucinda, and he becomes enamoured of the glassworks she bought with part of her fortune. He also becomes complicit in a wonderful scheme to build a church – not just any church but a church that will surpass all others in the colony. A scheme that leads to the climax of the story and to its inevitable and tragic end.

Photo of Peter Carey from The Guardian

Like the main characters, the writing is colourful and it moves along at such a breakneck pace that the reader needs occasionally to rest up before the next onslaught. Grey, cold paintings of England and vibrant, hot paintings from Sydney and NSW form the backdrop against which Oscar and Lucinda become more and more entangled with each other and with their own obsessions.

A story about the different doors that open when nothing is said or when too much is relegated to chance. Definitely a book worth reading.

Oscar and Lucinda was made into a film in 1997, and you can watch the trailer here.

06 June 2017

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, USA, 2002



Set against a background of America’s south in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees is a wonderful piece of feminist literature. The strongest characters in the book are women, and it is the women who remain with us long after we have turned the last page.


The main character is Lily, a fourteen-year-old white girl; her mother is dead and her father is abusive and cruel. When the housekeeper Rosaleen, a black woman, attempts to register for the vote, she is accosted, thrown into gaol and beaten up. Lily manages to sneak her out of the hospital, terrified that if she is to be left there the men who beat her up will come back and kill her. The two women then hitchhike to a town, the name of which Lily has seen on the back of a card belonging to her mother. Eventually they reach the home of a bee keeper.


Bees are an important part of the story, which is basically about finding oneself and being able to accept that which one finds. There are many references to the healing qualities of honey and how understanding and ‘letting go’ leads to personal freedom.


The queen bee, the Black Madonna, the Negro women and, of course, Lily herself all combine to create a force that shows that although they might be living in a man’s world, it is in fact women who have the last word. 



Photo of Sue Monk Kidd from Scholastic 

15 May 2017

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Korea, 2007




When I began this short and beautifully written novel, where strange blood-thirsty dreams are intertwined with mundane, domestic interactions, I thought that it may have been about the central character’s, Yeong-hye, attempts to free herself from the male-dominated society in which she lives. Her decision to stop eating meat was, for me, a sign of a new independence and an awareness of the soul-destroying relationships – husband, family – all of which are threatening to destroy her.


However, as I read on, I realized that Han Kang’s book delves much deeper than male dominance and female acquiescence. It may be about the restrictions imposed by a male-dominated society, but I feel that it is also about the many other restrictions that limit both men and women. Most people are unaware of the limitations, because they are not interested in pushing boundaries: they spend mundane, unfulfilled lives somewhere in a safe middle zone. Han Kang herself has said that the book is an allegory for present-day Korea, and, as such, it is probably a description of Korea’s attempt to find herself and realize her potential.


Yeong-hye knows that there is something else, but to reach this something else she also knows that she has to extricate herself from everything that is holding her back – first meat and eventually any kind of food: she needs to become as one with the natural environment around her. Her brother-in-law, the artist, is subconsciously aware of the beauty that exists beyond that point of letting-go, but he is unable to let go, fettered, as it were, by his animal desires. At the end of the book, Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, begins to understand that Yeong-hye is not mad, and she finally understands what it is that her sister has been trying to communicate.


Like a painting, this is a beautiful but disturbing book with many different levels and, no doubt, many individual interpretations.


Photo of Han Kang above from Barnes & Noble

02 May 2017

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, USA, 1980



A man washed up on the coast of the Mediterranean is not only frightfully wounded but is also suffering from amnesia. He cannot remember why he is where he is, and he cannot remember who he is.


Over the next 500-plus pages, the man slowly remembers snippets of his past while all around him it is obvious that professional killers are intent on eradicating him. Like a blindfolded man with one hand tied behind his back he must still try to remain one step in front of these killers, using each small piece of information gleaned to complete the jigsaw. Who is he? Why is where he is? Why do people want to kill him?


The book is very well written. The pace is fast; the content is intelligent and obviously researched. It is the type of book that wants to be read in one long reading: in other words, it is a book that is extremely difficult to put down. Although there are many characters, both major and minor, and a multitude of plot twists and turns, many provoked by the intricacies of politics and high finance, the reader remains captivated, wanting more.


Set mainly in Europe (Paris, Switzerland, the Mediterranean… ) it also extends across the Atlantic to New York. The occasional use of French phrases is handled particularly well, and at no point does it feel forced or out of place; it helps to emphasize the European atmosphere that is such an important part of the story.


The ending hints at a possible continuation (The Bourne Supremacy), and although I was disappointed that the roller coaster ride had come to an end, I knew that there was another book, and another ride, just around the corner. A great book; I would recommend it to anyone.


Those of you who have seen the film by the same name (released in 2002) should not believe that you do not have to read the book: the film and the book are two completely different realities. The film has grown out of several ideas in the book, but in no way does it replicate the book, even though it has retained the name. Watching it after I had read the book was a great disappointment, because had it kept to the book it could have been ever so much more intelligent, exciting and believable.

Photo of Robert Ludlum from Goodreads

18 April 2017

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark, UK, 1971



Witty and intelligently written, this novella is set in a upper-class home outside Geneva on a particularly stormy and inclement night. The Baron and the Baroness have withdrawn to the library with their secretary and have impressed upon the staff that they are not to be disturbed.


With the three central characters off-stage in the library, the butler, Lister, orchestrates the entire evening as though it is a play; reality and the absurd are expertly woven together; and it is difficult to know where the one begins and the other ends. The butler and the other members of the staff prepare for a three-way tragedy, although why or how this should be happening remains a partial mystery. With great flair, Lister organizes everything for the expected onslaught by police, the media and outsiders at daybreak; he has even given taken care of things like the Baron’s mad brother cloistered in the attic and the inheritance of the estate. Everyone practises the lines he or she will later repeat for the police and others, and, like the director of a play, Lister adds a word here, removes a sentence there, makes suggestions...



Not to Disturb needs to be read several times in order to appreciate the satire and the very clever twists and turns of language. The ending leaves the reader with many questions: how much did the staff actually know in advance? Were they complicit in the tragedy? What happened afterwards? . . . Perhaps one of the strengths of the novella is that there are no definite answers to these many questions.


The photo of Muriel Spark in 1960 is from Wikipedia

04 April 2017

The Good People by Hannah Kent, Australia, 2016


Hannah Kent’s second book follows in the footsteps of her first book, Burial Rites, where the story plays out against a background that is harsh, grey, cold and unforgiving. While Burial Rites is set in Iceland, The Good People has the Irish winter of 1825/1826 as its background. Kent’s ability to capture a physical sensation of cold and deprivation in her writing is to be admired.

This is a book about the complexity of myth and superstition and the way in which it merges with traditional religious belief. The story, situated in an Irish rural village of the early nineteenth century, centres on three women: Nόra, newly widowed and the guardian of her deceased daughter’s four-year-old child, Micheál; Nance, the village wise woman; and Mary, a fourteen-year-old girl hired by Nόra to help her with Micheál.


Micheál is disabled, though, if we are to believe Nόra, he began life as well and healthy as any other child. Although she fears that her daughter and son-in-law may have failed to care for him and feed him properly, Nance strongly believes that he is a changeling: the real Micheál has been taken by the fairies or the good people.

The story unwinds against a background where a depressing Irish winter competes only with ignorance, herbal remedies and an unbelievable array of concoctions to ward off harm and/or bring luck. Traditional religious practices may be part of every-day life for these people, but as the new priest soon realizes (much to his chagrin) his flock is not only Christian but also pagan.

The Good People should appeal to most readers but especially to those who have experienced Irish superstitions and folk lore at first hand. It is a book that once commenced cannot be put down.

Photo of Hannah Kent from The Australian

21 March 2017

On the Beach by Nevil Shute, UK, 1957



I first read this book many years ago when I was in my late teens, and although I could remember the main theme I had forgotten many of the details. This second reading added many different perspectives, which was inevitable given the fact that years had become decades.

At the very beginning of the book it is apparent that all life has been eradicated from the northern hemisphere after the unfortunate firing of several nuclear bombs by the “Irresponsibles”, and that the nuclear cloud is rapidly approaching Australia, the last island of life on the planet. But it is the 1950s and, despite being swept towards such a horrifying reality, people are more friendly and courteous, and things seem simpler.

Yet, underlying all the polite, and at times seemingly unnecessary, conventions, people are actually in a state of disintegration: Moira is losing herself in alcohol; Dwight (an American) clings to the impossible belief that his family is still alive and well in America; Mary devotes her time to her garden and other home improvements. Peter is one of the few characters who is able to admit to himself the inevitability of what is about to happen, and yet he finds himself in a situation where he is forever balancing other people’s fantasies with the unavoidable reality.

Photo of Nevil Shute from Wikipedia

Readers living in the twenty-first century might wonder at the perceived apathy of the Australian people as they wait for the cloud to envelop them; however, there are substantial differences between the 1950s and the twenty-first century. The transport possibilities that had been fairly basic at best were made null and void with the scarcity of petrol – bikes and horses were not going to move many people very far, nor would it happen quickly. Also, the idea of cycling in front of a cloud that would sooner or later overtake every human on the planet would not have been very encouraging. People from that period were not tied to information media as we are today, but were this to happen today we would most probably find ourselves in a similar position: no radio, no newspapers, no television and no internet. Once our twenty-first-century dependence on external media was forcibly removed we would probably feel that we were in a worse position than the people from the 1950s.
 
The writing is typical Nevil Shute: it does not create a literary masterpiece, but it gives us a few hours of relatively fast-paced entertainment. That said, On the Beach is not just mindless entertainment as it paints a reality that was extremely possible in the latter part of the 1950s and, unfortunately, is just as possible today, sixty years further on.