Category Archives: fiction

A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley

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Mary Wesley and I usually get on like a house on fire – I’ve enjoyed eight of the ten novels she wrote for adults – but this wasn’t the case with the ninth, A Sensible Life, the story of Flora who we first meet as a 10 year old child on holidays in France, walking a dog on a beach, as observed by 15 year old Cosmo from the shore, but who we never really get to know in any profound way.

Flora’s parents have no time for her and in the way of Mary Wesley’s ‘orphans’ she soon finds herself observing the people around her, including Cosmo’s family, and becoming peripherally involved – which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but isn’t if you’re Mary Wesley – on an irregular basis.

The main problem I had with A Sensible Life was the way that Flora was treated as an object by most of the other characters – from her parents who palm her welfare off on to other people, and then send her to boarding school in England, to the two young men, Cosmo and Hubert, who foist their sexual attentions upon Flora aged 15 but ignore her otherwise, to Cosmo’s mother, who is threatened by Flora’s sexual power and deliberately neglects her welfare as a consequence.  It was not only joyless reading but it also reflected badly on a culture that objectifies young women.

Problematically for the book, there doesn’t seem to be any point to this treatment of Flora.  She is barely affected by others’ behaviour towards her and they in turn, do not grow or develop in any way over.  Because nothing changes, there is no shape and no colour to the book, and no need for a resolution or climax, which, overall, makes for fairly pointless reading.

A Sensible Life is not one of Mary Wesley’s best.

Book Details:
A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley
Black Swan, 1990, 380 pages, personal copy.

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk

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Rachel Cusk is a genius.  The Lucky Ones is a brilliant book.  Five chapters – each told from the perspective of a different character, yet each linked to the other chapters through the relationships of the characters within.  A modern tale which sometimes skewers our preoccupied, self-absorbed lives, and sometimes portrays them sympathetically. There were many ‘ah-hah’ moments of recognition for me in The Lucky Ones as Cusk’s insights illuminated contemporary habits and behaviour.  Her writing is to be cherished.

Here’s an example from the second chapter, wherein a group of six friends have travelled away together to ski:

   The bar was clad in pine from floor to ceiling.  It was crowded with people speaking German and French, who looked large and loudly coloured.  The claustrophobic interior seemed to erase the memory of proportion, so that Martin could no longer remember the size of anything, the mountain on which they were perched, the infinity of space and darkness above and below them, nor how far he was from his city, his house and the rooms in which he lived.
‘It’s funny how having children has made me see my own parents as much more vulnerable,’ said Lucy. ‘My sister still sees them as the enemy. I’m sure that’s because, in an important way, she hasn’t grown up.’
‘How’s Dominique doing?’ said Jane.
‘She’s fine.’
‘How’s the breastfeeding going?’
‘Fine. Great.’
‘Did you say she’s got her mother staying with her this week?’
‘That’s right.’
‘She must have really wanted to come,’ said Lucy, her face screwed up in sympathy as though watching someone in pain.
‘You’ve just had a baby,’ Josephine stated, tagging on to their conversation.
‘Yes,’ said Martin.
‘Congratulations.’ She said the word with a slow incomprehensible smile. He felt imprisoned behind the barrier, the fact, his life had become. The women were staring at him, and stupidly he rubbed his face as if there were some mark on it at which they were looking.
‘Thanks.’
‘It must be really difficult,’ said Josephine, ‘for you. You know, do I get on with my life, do I stay at home being supportive—‘
Martin looked at Thomas, who was sitting next to Christian at the other end of the table arranging matchsticks around his bottle of beer.

Martin stood and took his beer down to the other end of the table.  Josephine glanced at him as he went, and out of the corner of his eye he saw her lean over and say something to Jane.

I like this for so many reasons – the fatuous discussion about the effect of children on adults’ lives, the divide between the genders, the self-absorption of seemingly intelligent people and the consequent inability to be truly involved in others’ lives, and the alienation — from others, from reality — that all of this creates for a character like Martin, from whose perspective we see this interaction.

I’ve been reading Rachel Cusk’s books in order, beginning with Saving Agnes (1993), then The Temporary (1995), The Country Life (1997) and the non-fiction about childrearing, A Life’s Work (2001).  They’re all very different but what they do have in common is a distinctive point of view and a rock-hard, uncompromising intelligence.  Further novels are In the Fold (2005), Arlington Park (2006), for which she was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007, and The Bradshaw Variations (2009).  Additional non-fiction is The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009) and the very recent non-fiction about the break-up of her marriage, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012).

Book details:
The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk
Harper Perennial, 2005 (originally published in the UK in 2003), 228 pages.

Review: The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

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I really enjoyed this book.  Within a few pages it created a sense of anticipation about the direction of three young lives, which I looked forward to resolving as I read.

It begins with a scene in a graveyard in the late summer of 1946 where three young women — Hester ‘Hetty’ Fallowes, Lieselotte Klein and Una Vane – have gathered following the news that morning that each of them has been awarded a state scholarship, an important award because it finances their place at university, which they can now take up.

Hetty is to read Literature at London, Una is off to Cambridge to read Physics and Lieselotte is to Cambridge as well to read Modern Languages.  As the girls lounge among the gravestones, their feet on a tomb, Gardam gradually introduces us to their lives.

We learn that Hetty’s father is a former intellectual, ruined by the effects of World War 1 and not suitable for much besides gravedigging; her mother is an anxious individual, constrained by her husband’s lack of ambition, and one of those characters that sets the restrictive moral tenor for the small town in which they all live.  Una’s father was a doctor who committed suicide when Una was young so Una’s mother tries to make ends meet running a hair salon.  Lieselotte is a Jew from Hamburg, who arrived in England in 1939 ‘on the last train full of refugee children, the Kindertransport’, and as a consequence has no parents.  She has lived with a childless Quaker couple for six years after losing her papers that would have seen her united with a relative.

The book follows the group in the couple of months before they begin university in October: Hetty takes herself off to the Lakes District to study, Una bicycles around the countryside with her friend Ray, and Lieselotte vanishes to London following a bureaucratic breakthrough in finding her relative.

What I liked about this book was the strong, feisty, multi-dimensional characters –- from the three young women to their parents, and other adults in their lives.  In the cases of Hetty and Una, I enjoyed the exploration of the relationships each had with their mothers — a type of exploration I haven’t really encountered before in much fiction.  Mothers tend to be characterized as foils, as others, as objects to be defined against, or just plain perfect.  But in The Flight of the Maidens this bond is examined, looking at how it’s maintained and valued despite its imperfections.

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Thoughts on the TBR Double Dare

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I’ve read five books from my TBR Double Dare pile, which is great, of course, but what I’ve read has caused me to think about all the other books crammed around the house and how long some of them have been crammed around the house.

You see, with the exception of Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch, the books I nominated for the TBR Double Dare are all relatively recent acquisitions, occurring within the last couple of years, mainly from BookMooch.  There are other books around the house that have been with me for much longer – in some cases, almost twenty years or so.

While I’m pleased to have knocked a few intended books off my list, I feel as though I could take this reading challenge a bit deeper.  In other words, figure out which books have been around the longest and either read ‘em or ditch ‘em according to my level of interest in ‘em.

Three examples:

The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley by Donald S. Olson

 According to the docket still in this book, I bought it from the Electric Shadows Bookshop in Canberra on 28 February 1995 for the princely sum of $32.90.  I liked the idea of this book – a dramatization of the life of artist Aubrey Beardsley – but I could never find a way into it when I tried to read it.  Am I interested now?  A bit.

Betrayals by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser’s Betrayals has been with me as long as the Donald S. Olson.  I’m put off by the reference to Italo Calvino on the back, who I’ve always thought of as a tricksy post-modernist and while I appreciate tricksy post-modernism, I’m currently more in love with plot and highlighting historical injustices towards women.  Am I interested in this one today?  Not much.

Immortality by Milan Kundera

This last was a present from my dad in 1993 – he inscribed it for me.  I used to like Kundera’s work, particularly The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  I think I just never got round to reading this one.  Do I want to read it still?  Yes.

It’s only a vague thought at present but I feel as though continuing on with the TBR Double Dare after April and focusing on books like those I’ve mentioned could make a very real and valuable contribution to my TBR pile.  While making me feel incredibly virtuous in the process.

Hmm, worth a thought.  There’s nothing quite like feeling virtuous.

Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

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I think I was too old for this book.  I think I would’ve appreciated it when I was in my twenties at university when the world was newish but I’m old and jaded now so the story of a 17 year old girl plotting to ruin the life of her libertine father’s new fiancée seemed all a bit fanciful, a bit yawn-making.

Set on the French Riviera, Cécile is living a high and hedonistic life with her forty-something-year-old father Raymond and his girl of the moment, redheaded Elsa.  They live a life of drinking, gambling, staying out late and not thinking too much.  When Anne, the seemingly level-headed and intellectual forty-something-year-old family friend comes to visit, her presence changes the louche dynamic forever.  Raymond proposes marriage to Anne, Elsa is forced to find comfort in the arms of someone else, while Cécile has to study daily for an exam she has failed previously.

Cécile dislikes these changes so with the help of Cyril, her 26 year old boyfriend in the next villa, and using Elsa’s continuing feelings for Raymond to further her own ends, she concocts a plan to destroy Anne.

Sagan has created a morally ambiguous character in Cécile.  By turns young and old, wise and stupid, tragic and ridiculous, she embodies the flightiness of youth, with its penchant for melodrama and a narcissistic appreciation of its developing talents.  Cécile is also that thing that fails to recognise when it’s being cruel or callous and if it does, continues in the same way anyway.  Sooo, like, adolescent.

Apparently this book caused a stir when it was published in the 1950s.  And with the sexually and morally emboldened Cécile at its core, I’m not surprised.  In 2012 it’s a bit passé.

Book details:
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, published by John Murray books 1954, Penguin 1958, 108 pages, personal copy mooched from BookMooch.

Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

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Having enjoyed Lev Grossman’s The Magicians last year, I was keen to follow it up with The Magician King, its sequel. And I think The Magician King is better. It’s faster-paced, it knows where it’s going and there’s a strongly imagined magical world to marvel at and think about.

That magical world is Fillory, the land that Quentin Coldwater and his friends learned about from a series of children’s books. As young magicians at the the secret college Brakebills, they discovered Fillory was real. What happened to them after that discovery is best read in The Magicians.

In The Magician King, however, Quentin, Janet, Eliot and Julie are now twenty-something and are the Kings and Queens of Fillory, living in castle Whitespires, and enjoying the perks of living in a wealthy, magical land.

Except for Quentin, who is bored.

So when there are rumours that the Seeing Hare has been seen thereabouts, Quentin and his friends ride into the forest to find it.  As one of the twelve Unique Beasts of Fillory – creatures that are thought to be immortal and in possession of a unique gift – the Seeing Hare’s gift is to predict the future of anyone who catches it.

The hunt – ultimately unsuccessful because tragic – turns out to be the preliminary quest to a more extended quest, one involving the attempt to save magic itself. From the gods, no less.

There are many things to like about Grossman’s book, not the least of which is a thoroughly 21st century approach to tone and character. The Magicians books might have started out on similar foundations to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series but its characters could be from nowhere else except here and now. They drink a lot, swear a lot, and have the kinds of close/distant, slightly abusive friendships that rely on the overuse of irony. Grossman is aware that he’s talking to a net-savvy, lit-savvy audience so his characters are au fait and up-to-date on fiction classics such as Harry Potter as well as contemporary developments in science and IT.

Quentin Coldwater is somewhat atypical of the fantasy genre as well. He wants to be part of something big, he wants to be a hero, but he overthinks things and never manages to ‘get amongst it’ as he believes he should or could. There is a bit of the Jean Paul Sartre about him with his ennui and low expectations of life: I think therefore I am sick of everything.(1) This kind of central character almost didn’t work for me – his presence in the book felt like a dash of coldwater … – but once I worked out that that’s the point and Quentin is something of an unreliable narrator as a consequence, I began to wonder what the book held in store for Quentin.

And his story is actually counterbalanced beautifully by Julia’s story. Julia was Quentin’s high-school friend who didn’t pass the test to get into the Brakebills magic school but who learned and attained a level of magic off the streets that might be ugly and clumsy in parts but is as powerful as much of Quentin’s establishment magic. In The Magician King we learn her story and the difficulties she faced in trying to become a magician on her own. It’s riveting stuff.

I have to mention one section of the book where my heart took a turn. It’s a tribute to Grossman’s endless and clever imagination that it was able to re-turn. There is a section towards the end of the book where Julia has become involved in a quest for the gods. As I started to read these pages about gods and their histories, a tide of disappointment started lapping at my toes. I was being reminded of Philip Pullman’s somewhat clumsy attempts at skewering Christianity in the last of the Golden Compass series which, in turn, led me on to thoughts of the Narnia books with their strong allegorical Christian thread.

Not another fantasy novel that has to revert to Christianity as an integral plot device, I thought.

But no, thankfully, no. For me, Grossman cleverly found an alternative and it’s one for which I’m profoundly grateful.

The Magician King is a wonderful read written by a talented author. Go read it.

This book was on my TBR list even though it’s a library book, so yippee and yay for me.

(1.) I doubt I’m even paraphrasing Sartre, but you get the drift.

Book details:
The Magician King by Lev Grossman, William Heinemann London, 2011, 400 pages, library copy.

BOOK REVIEW: Imperium by Robert Harris

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BOOK REVIEW: Imperium by Robert Harris, fiction, Arrow Books, paperback, 2006, 480 pages.

‘Gripping’ Guardian
‘Captivating’ Newsweek
‘Marvellous’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Accomplished’ Observer
‘Fascinating’ Mail on Sunday
‘Engrossing’ New York Times
‘Yeah, look, it didn’t grab me’ Indiscriminate Reader

Somehow, I don’t think Robert Harris is going to care too much about my less-than-enthusiastic response to his book, Imperium given the positive if mono-syllabic reviews it received from a large number of major global newspapers.  But the very least I can do is outline the reasons for this lack of enthusiasm.

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