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"A Room Made of Leaves" by Kate Grenville

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In A Room Made of Leaves, the splendid Kate Grenville takes the scanty historical materials covering the settlement of Sydney to build a narrative of Elizabeth Macarthur, settler and early wool entrepreneur in New South Wales. In 1790, Mrs. Macarthur, wife of Captain John Macarthur of the New South Wales Corps, was the first wife of a British soldier to arrive in Sydney. It’s well-established that her husband was at the least a prideful and disputatious man, and made things difficult for himself and all around him, including, of course, his wife.

Every marriage has its own emotional tenor and nuances, and Grenville supplies these for the Macarthurs brilliantly. Balancing what we know of the captain’s character against the undeniable achievements of his wife, this author-supplied shading feels inevitable, spot-on. Other unknowable particulars, such as Elizabeth’s marriage prospects or the couple’s courtship, we gladly leave to Grenville’s highly capable imagination. Suffice it to say these treatments are every bit up to Grenville’s mastery, proving once again why she is among the first rank of novelists today.

These particulars are a matter of public record, but as is so often the case, the public record leaves a great deal to be desired—and corrected. I’ll start by citing some of the bare background. Elizabeth Macarthur managed the first and most exemplar wool station in Australia. Her husband made two journeys to England, each of these under either arrest or a cloud of suspicion, and his absences totaled 13 years between 1801 and 1817. During that time, Elizabeth bred and developed the fine wool-producing sheep that eventually led to Australia’s first-in-the-world wool industry that thrives to this day.

A Room Made of Leaves has its flights of poetry, however; this is no dry tome. The established fact of Elizabeth’s ability as an amateur astronomer and botanist was celebrated in  1920s newspaper accounts. Grenville reaches a level of poetry in treating her ongoing studies with Lt. Dawes, the first Royal Astronomer of Australia. The author bestows her soaring language on Elizabeth’s quest for knowledge as she braves the novelty of the observatory’s remote location and the difficulties of reaching it (pp. 195-196):

Each step revealed a new marvel: a view through the bushes of a slice of harbour rough and blue like lapis, a tree with bark of such a smooth pink fleshiness that you could expect it to be warm, an overhang of rock with a fraying underside, soft as cake, that glowed yellow. The wind brought with it the salt of the ocean and the strange spicy astrigency given off by the shrubs and flowers. There was an almost frightening breadth and depth and height to the place, alive with openness and the wild energy of breeze and trees and the crying gulls and the brilliant water. Alone, a speck of human in a place big enough to swallow me, I looked about with eyes that seemed open for the first time. … It was not a long track, but it was a journey into another landscape, another climate, another country.”

Such are the treats we expect and welcome from Kate Grenville. She has produced a fine, nuanced, and fully fictionalized version (which from me is the highest praise possible) of a historical person. In the process she honors one of Australia’s most important and influential pioneers, one who feels the guilt at the treatment of the Aboriginals—and who admits her own complicity in it—but one who bravely raised her children and her ran agricultural holdings in the face of steep odds. With this memorable book, Grenville does her bit to redress the prejudice against women’s accomplishments and gives us a vivid personal retelling of a unique moment in history.



"Restoration" by Rose Tremain

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The marvelous Rose Tremain renders a highly memorable protagonist—one hesitates to call him a hero—in her 1989 novel Restoration. Sir Robert Merivel, who receives his title during the narrative, is too lustful, too tipsy, and too gluttonous to be an example of virtue, particularly in Restoration England, where our story is set. Charles II takes the throne Parliament restores to its king, the country tired of, as the author says in her Afterword, “… [keeping] their thoughts obediently turned to a Protestant God who commanded civic duty, modesty, hard work and self-sacrifice.” Tremain renders Restoration London, with every trend, every thought, every fashion, and every favor emanating from the Monarch, in such delicious detail, that you will be swept up.

Under Charles, Britain rushes to embrace the new mania for personal gain and all things shallow and showy. Robert Merivel reflects this mania, and in fact, seeks to be an exemplar of his time. You could say, without fear of contradiction, that he accomplishes this. I would dare to say that his reverses do nothing to alter our opinion—he’s still an exactly typical man of court. We meet him while he’s studying anatomy at Cambridge. This discipline he falls out of in short order: his father is glove maker to the King, and he brings Robert and introduces him to His Majesty. Robert is overwhelmed in the Royal presence, physically ill and unable to stand and present himself appropriately. Thus does Charles’s presence affect him through the entire book.

By her own account, Tremain wrote Restoration during the 1980s as an indictment of Thatcher’s greedy and preening England. It feels even more timely today, a mirror to modern Western consumerism and income inequality run amok. It remains on point, it exhibits Tremain’s unflagging skill in evoking a time and place, and focuses its first-person energy on a highly entertaining, and at times even sympathetic, character.
 


 

"The Third Policeman" by Flann O'Brien

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Near the outset of Flann O’Brien’s wild The Third Policeman, the unnamed first-person narrator and his business partner Divney settle on a plot to murder Mathers and steal his fortune, purportedly kept in a steel cashbox. In short order the deed is done (by our narrator), after which the narrative takes a turn, plunging us into the confusing, the confoundingly funny, and the downright weird. Fortunately, O’Brien plays with our minds and our language is a most diverting way, and I found myself laughing while I worried for our hero, almost certain to die.


I can do no better than quote a few passages, to give you the flavor of the book: on an outing with a police Sergeant, the narrator and a man named Gilhaney search for Gilhaney’s stolen bicycle (Chap. 6):



We were now going through a country full of fine enduring trees where it was always five o’clock in the afternoon. It was a soft corner of the world, free from inquisitions and disputations and very soothing and sleepening on the mind. There was no animal there that was bigger than a man’s thumb and no noise superior to that which the Sergeant was making with his nose, an unusual brand of music like wind in the chimney. ”


Chapter 6 again:


Before we had time to listen carefully to what he was after saying he was half-way down the road with his forked coat sailing behind him on the sustenance of the wind he was raising by reason of his headlong acceleration.

‘A droll man,’ I ventured.

‘A constituent man,’ said the Sergeant, ‘largely instrumental but volubly fervous.”

 

Such are the locutions of our characters, but I have not spent any words on the outré buildings, oddball, unexplained plot events, and existential threat which our narrator in turn faces. I have also not mentioned the cockeyed life, work, and honored reputation of the writer, experimentalist, and philosopher de Selby, about whose work our narrator is something of a scholar. Discussions, asides and lengthy footnotes leaven the early chapters, and make their highly comic appearance throughout. I have no idea what the author means with this addition, except to double our fun.


This novel will amuse and bemuse you, and you will wonder a few times, what is the point? There is definitely a point, dear readers, and well worth sticking around through the 19th-century horror passages for. This novel is a classic of its type: dark, atmospheric, and laugh-out-loud funny. 


"The Living Sea of Waking Dreams" by Richard Flanagan

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In The Living Sea of Waking Dreams author Richard Flanagan tells the story of Anna, an  architect working in Sydney, but born and raised in Tasmania. As Anna approaches her sixtieth year, her mother begins to fail, and Flanagan plays out this  family drama against a 21st-Century backdrop of apocalyptic environmental disasters. Society’s resulting unspooling reflects that of Mother Earth’s suffering ecosphere, and all this serves as backdrop as Anna and her two brothers hash out what to do about their own mother. The brilliant Flanagan not only poignantly shows human weakness in the face of loss, he manages to skewer our modern grasping mania for material wealth at the same time. It’s a daring, balanced, bravura performance.

Anna and her second brother gang up on the ineffectual older brother to overrule him and dictate the care their mother will receive. The results are ghastly for poor Francie, the mother, who must endure months and months of progressively more agonizing treatment until she can no longer express herself: she’s unable to repeat her pleas to be let go. Just when descriptions of the mother during her hospital stay become unbearable for the reader, they get worse. Just as Anna’s own perceptions of herself becomes shaky and maybe unreliable, we find ourselves instructed to believe them; this pitches the story into fantastical realms, which ratchets the tension further.

Does all this sound unappealing? Does it sound depressing? It might, depending on your preferences. But: Flanagan’s construct and treatment will reward you with his keen eye for modern greed and arrogance, both personal and societal; the dynamics of present-day privilege, based as it is on balance sheets personal and financial; the utter disregard for Earth’s natural and human resources; a family’s callous treatment of its one member free of mental instability; and a professional woman’s harrowing journey to life-threatening illness.

Almost too many themes to recount: a heritage of family strife, deriving at least in part from a priest’s pedophilia; a natural environment reduced to smoke and ash, which Flanagan uses to confound everyone’s sight and breathing; the injustice resulting in grasping and wielding the power inhering to wealth; the distracting and counterproductive effect of social media; a close-up journey with a woman losing her senses. The myopic attention to these themes is so close and the telling so unrelenting that we are startled by the late appearance of a party from outside, a party who introduces a hopeful element whether we deserve it or not. But that’s the beauty of Flanagan’s work here. He reminds us to keep our perspective on the larger picture and to nurture hope in it.

Stick with this one. It’s distressing, dismaying, and at times deeply pessimistic, but it’s Flanagan. I need not say more.



"Count Four," Poems by Kieth Kopka

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Count Four arrives as Kieth Kopka’s debut poetry collection; it contains some 32 pieces informed by working class struggles, and populated by the denizens of working class backwaters. Kopka turns a felicitous phrase on occasion, but overall this collection reads like flash fiction written in verse form. In seedy or shady or poverty-stricken circumstances, his characters strive to rise above the lots they have been handed; mostly there are no answers here, only disturbing questions.

Kopka does flash his torch on some very arresting juxtapositions: John Wayne the movie hero with John Wayne the cancer victim; stolen clothing piled high enough on a bed to reach a crucifix on a wall; Henry Ford and square dancing; accidentally running over a squirrel in the road and a faulty parking meter robbing the poet of time. These stark comparisons indicate if not a hopelessness, a  nagging doubt in the value of effort.

I found some truly memorable, and sometimes admirable, imagery here. In “Cold Pastoral” Kopka brings into the same short poem: a speaker combining the re-enactment of a Civil War battle and a desire to fix the landscape by driving a Zamboni machine. In “Monument” the poet’s character has been arrested for suspicion of arson and is beaten by a “chubby rookie” cop: “my compliant frame / absorbing each swing / of his nightstick, / until finally I, too, / start to take shape.”

In “Homecoming,” the speaker’s cousin Danny comes home for a family dinner wearing a blond wig and asking to be called Danielle. The first person narrator takes over doing the dishes and tosses Danielle a dish rag, inviting her to kitchen duty: “I lace my fingers into hers, and we plunge / them into the clogged basin, together pushing / through whatever remnants are left.”

Kopka truly has a poetic sensibility, especially a knack for yoking startlingly disparate elements into the service of a single clear message. There is a power here, certainly, however much one might wish for a more exalted diction.

 


 



 

"Maison Cristina" by Eugene K. Garber

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In Maison Cristina we encounter Peter Naughton, an old man whose son has committed him to the care of Catholic nuns in a New Orleans facility for mental patients. Author Eugene K. Garber shows off his protagonist’s learning throughout the book. He’s a  teller of stories, a knower of arcane facts, an inveterate user and weaver of words. The nuns at the Maison enlist his help in treating a haunted young woman who has been scarred into silence. This is quirky, memorable, and affecting work.

Garber does not concern himself with clinical details as Naughton and the young woman, Charlene, become cured, or at least rehabilitated to the point of release. He spends his energy instead on twirling two spookily related narratives, the one with which Naughton regales the young patient, and the story of Naughton himself. As the novel progresses, these tales become intertwined, until at length, readers realize they have become one and the same. The quotation marks fall away; the character telling the story merges with the author. It’s an interesting effect, the author managing to bring greater immediacy to Naughton’s searching, yearning life, and his compelling stories.

I found the episodes describing his unstable family disturbing—they kept me at a distance. Clearly these are meant to ground Naughton’s own instability in the believable. For me, they felt diffuse and confusing. If Naughton is still hallucinating about dead or absent people, why is he being released from the hospital? The intermittent appearances of his personal demon is more of the same, in my view.

Naughton the character is the best thing in the book. Quite intelligent, supremely well-read, he acts with charity towards his fellow patients and unstinting deference towards the nuns charged with his care. Conversations with his therapist Sister Claire, and with Mother Martha, the director, unfold with kindliness and crackle with sagacity when dealing with recondite issues of language, mental health, and morals.

At length, these are what Maison Cristina is about. Don’t approach this book expecting logic when dealing with therapy or any dependable rendition of familial relations. If you seek startling images, elevated learning and language, and deep respect and affection between learned, well-meaning people, you will find these convincingly rendered, even instructive.

 


 

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro treats us lucky readers to yet another take on a dystopian future in Klara and the Sun. And once again, as in Never Let Me Go (2005) he approaches his subject obliquely. He withholds details of world events and resulting dislocations, giving only quick, almost throwaway indications here and there. The main indicator is that Klara, the first-person narrator of the title, is an AF, or Artificial Friend, a very life-like robot blessed with an AI-like ability to learn. But more to the point, Klara can provide companionship to humans. This is a haunting, understated read, the kind we have come to expect from Ishiguro. It is also a brilliant, accomplished fiction, which again, is no surprise, given the author.

Klara’s story leads off with her experience at the store, where she is available for sale to a discriminating teen. In Klara’s case the discriminating teen is Josie, a youngster dealing with an unnamed illness. In these early pages we also learn of Klara’s unusual cognitive abilities: she observes keenly, and from what she sees, makes nuanced and surprisingly sophisticated conclusions about human behavior and desire. In fact, Klara’s narrative reflects her unusual intellect and ranks as one of Ishiguro’s great achievements here.

I came to treasure Klara’s insightful storytelling, and her polite conversation. It’s the slightest bit stilted, coming from a machine, but clearly reflects Klara’s ability to observe, reason, and advise. Putting Klara in the first person is a bold stroke for Ishiguro, and yet it comes across as the only way to present this story. Teenagers are a mystery, and would make unreliable narrators: at some point parents have to decide whether to “lift” their pubescent young, a procedure which alters their genes and marks out the child as privileged—eligible for university training and a professional career—but also carries vague risks. These risks threaten Josie, and her illness lies at the root of the decision to buy Klara.

Humans occupy a central place in Ishiguro’s bleak future: addle-pated, lonely, crushed by circumstance, they struggle with the world they have made. They form up into warring clans again, harkening back a thousand years into a violent past; they try to fix things for themselves by buying artificial companions for their despairing children; they  grasp and grapple in a world obviously resisting any kind of sense or control. Of course Klara had to tell this story. In the author’s world, we could depend on no one else.

I felt this to be somewhat a companion-piece to Never Let Me Go. Its future is just as bleak, and the unfeeling, murderous, greedy, and exclusionary solutions people find to correct their own incompetence are almost as horrifying. As two separate treatments of current trends in the world, these two books are as chilling as they are masterful. Take up Klara and learn!

 


 

 

"How to Disappear" by Bruna Gomes

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Bruna Gomes takes a plunge into the deep end of the pool with her debut work, How to Disappear. Her approach will take an adjustment on the part of readers, but once your adjustments are in place, there are rewards for you here, rewards that promise a bright future for Gomes.

The author does a superb job engaging her readers in the heroine’s stream-of-consciousness internal dialogue. This half clear-eyed, half delusional narrative carries all aspects of the story with it. In fact, while Gomes focusses rightly on her main character’s mental state, in my view her story would benefit from a baby step back from it, to open up a small space for exposition of concrete outside events. Are we sure what happened to her best friend Winnie? There’s room for doubt about whether onetime boyfriend Alejandro is as guilty as assumed. And how does Cille find our protagonist while she’s knocking around in rural Spain? And what of the sister Naomi, who almost inexplicably accepts our hero’s sudden offer of a paid vacation, is shunted off to an exclusive New York apartment and never heard from again?

These may be quibbles, but they strained my suspension of disbelief.

These weaknesses, though, flow from the great strength of the novel. We encounter, up close and personal, a troubled young woman’s journey in which she’s endlessly on the run, a literal outlaw on the lam. Her point of departure seems to be her mother’s untimely death and the resulting deterioration of her relationship with Naomi. But other demons press this young woman into flight and larceny and worse. That we believe and accept these sometimes shocking crimes is clearly a testament to Gomes’s skill in rendering her protagonist’s mental state and motivation.

In fact, I look forward to Bruna Gomes’s future output. She has a grand skill in describing a character’s internal conflict, up to and including a convincingly shaky mental health. She can also describe a physical locale effectively and economically, and the whole sets a mood for the reader quite well. This beginning promises good things to come.

 


 

 

"My Year Abroad" by Chang-Rae Lee

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Two thirds of the way through Chang-Rae Lee’s thrill ride of a novel, “My Year Abroad,” protagonist Tiller Bardmon, midway through his college years, leads off a chapter this way: “Question: What happens to you when you’ve gone way too far? Not just off trail, not even bushwhacking, but venturing into a region where it turns out the usual physics don’t much apply. … To look back at myself during my stay at Drum Kappagoda’s lodge is to slough off every notion of whatever made me me.”

Lee spends almost 500 pages sloughing off every notion of what makes Tiller Tiller in “My Year Abroad.”

The basics, broadly: a wealthy Chinese-American entrepreneur takes Tiller under his wing and after a very short acquaintance flies him from his home in New Jersey to the Far East, pushing him into a key spokesperson’s role for a new health drink he’s hoping to bring to market. Everything they do, every time they consume anything, all is over-indulgence—food, drink, drugs (taken both voluntarily and involuntarily)—and any kind of physical recreation. Gobs and gobs of money are invested, traded, made, or speculated about. Our heroes nearly drown in the surf off Oahu, pay a surprise visit to a brothel, and wind up at a secluded lodge outside of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, in China. The owner of the lodge is hosting a competition for Yoga masters.

Tiller bears few illusions about himself: his mother fled the scene when he was barely in grade school, and while he’s friendly and intelligent enough, Tiller has a strong tendency to latch on—and not let go—to anyone who treats him well. The quote leading this review off appears before things really get weird for the young man.

So there’s nothing ordinary about the plot of “My Year Abroad.” We travel to some exotic locales, indulge in mind-boggling (at least for me) pastimes, run across some truly tough customers, and become imprisoned in a ruthless businessman’s workshop. All the while Tiller’s dad, Clark, thinks Tiller’s in Western Europe on the cheap, seeing the sights, dallying with young ladies, and pretending to study lit. The story is told in two threads: one contains the events I’ve described here, and the other occurs afterward, when Tiller has returned to the States, to an unidentified, unremarkable town.

Lee focuses us on the themes of race, slave exploitation (perpetrated by Asian businessmen), and shady modern business practices. Most of all, though, we have the painful growth of Tiller, with its chaotic, threatening nature. After he is drugged and … explored … by the oddly laconic daughter of a Far Eastern millionaire, he would look back on the experience, and utter the quote above, about sloughing off his old identity. Ultimately, one of the Yoga masters, a friendly if atypical practitioner, tells him to keep inviting the sublime that’s flowing around him.
 
Then she quotes the great Swami Sivananda: “‘This world is your body. This world is a great school. This world is your silent teacher.’”

Tiller says, “I loved hearing her say that, and as unsilently as she did. I loved, too, the idea of learning from the world, this world that was also only you. Was this the secret circularity? That belonged to you as much as it did to anyone? Yes and yes. The most pressing question, I suppose … was whether you belonged first to somebody else.”

This is a fine novel to experience. Everyone who loves a fun read will love “My Year Abroad.” The locations, the cultures, the action, the characters, the mystery, the tension in both narrative threads—all these prove Lee’s mastery and his vision. 




"Gods, Nukes, and a Whole Lot of Nonsense" by Shirani Rajapakse

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Having previously turned her keen eye to the ravages of Sri Lankan civil war (Fallen Leaves, 2020) and raised her voice to shout the too-often silent pleas of oppressed women everywhere (Chant of a Million Women, 2017), multiple award-winning poet and writer Shirani Rajapakse focuses here on a few ineluctable features of modern India. Among them: the deep spirituality that casts its shadow and dictates so many daily practices; the entrenched and pervasive bureaucracy that depends on a network of cronies at the expense of merit; and perhaps most markedly, the bewildering face India presents to foreign tourists trying for a unique experience there.

Taken together, these stories show an assured balance and depth of emotion, an eye for the telling detail, and a worldly sense of the human similarities lurking below cultural differences. It’s a striking collection, a highly sophisticated achievement and shows the steady evolution of this already-accomplished writer.

“Prophet of the Thar,” the first story grouped in this collection, combines a couple of Rajapakse’s topoi: India’s spirituality and its sometimes all-too-human origins. A teenage goatherd who chafes under his father’s authority longs for something different. He gets it when he somehow becomes a celebrated holy man leading disciples through the Thar desert. This story’s delight resides in the observation of how easily the human faith response is triggered and how arbitrarily are its talismans chosen.

“In Search of a Miracle” is another tale illuminating the quotidian humanness behind much of religious faith. Here, however, no new gods or prophets rule the day; it’s  rampant commercialism and a touch of xenophobia that partially drives the action. The main thrust, however, comes from the eternal naiveté of foreign tourists who come to India’s spiritual capital in Varanasi to find what they think of as “experience,” but which barely allows them to leave with body and soul intact. This is the grittiest piece in the collection, and worth the price of admission by itself.

“Gods, Nukes, and a Whole Lot of Nonsense,” a kind of a fugue piece, excoriates the blind faith in technology and the rampant jingoism which hurtle modern countries toward developing atomic weapons. It ends, appropriately enough, with a plaintive and despairing plea defending the natural resources of the country, the most important of which is human.

It intrigues me that two of the stories, “Ram Satrap Sharma, IAS,” and “The Consultant” deal so directly with aspects of public service and the kind of racket engaged in by those in India who call bureaucracy home. They show clearly that it’s not what you know but whom you know—and how you can manipulate them into awarding you remunerative work even when it’s not necessary and especially when you’re not the least bit knowledgeable about the subject. Telling pieces, particularly since they come in a pair in Rajapakse’s collection.

The author occupies herself with travel to and tourism in India. I’ve already mentioned “In Search of a Miracle,” but “Postcard Swami: the Face of Indiaah” [sic], and “Meeting God” also highlight the interaction of outsiders with India’s traditions, attitudes, and modern commercialism.

If there’s any justice in the awards given to current titles from this region, “Gods, Nukes, and a Whole Lot of Nonsense” will surely gather laurels to itself and its author. These stories represent a rewarding and clear growth of Rajapakse’s heart, powers of observation, and skill in storytelling.