Life After Life

Every novel I've read by Kate Atkinson has been a treat*, and Life After Life is no exception. A perfect middle-brow read, it teems with ideas and juicy story-lines, as well as a killer conceit. I had a lot of trouble putting this novel down and raced through its 600 pages in a couple of days.

What if you had the chance to live your life over and over, until you finally got it right? Ursula Todd is born in 1910 -- and dies, the cord wrapped round her neck. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 -- and lives, because the doctor arrives just in time to save her. We see Ursula's childhood and later life play out, with each forking path of chance explored. Sometimes these paths reconnect, sometimes they lead to wildly divergent outcomes. One of Ursula's lives takes place in wartime Germany; in another, she marries an abusive conman. Her adulthood takes place in the London Blitz -- plenty of opportunities for untimely death there. It's a measure of Atkinson's skill that the necessary repetitions and backtracks inherent in her scheme don't become tedious; half the fun is picking out the variations from the life before.

It hadn't occurred to me until I read a review this morning that Atkinson might be playing with the whole idea of the author's power to play God -- to bestow good fortune or many kinds of suffering. The character of Ursula herself seems to possess a growing awareness of her cyclical journey -- in one life in particular, she is actually calculating her own destiny. But then there is a coda that doesn't make sense in that narrative, planting doubts about whether this is really Ursula's "true purpose"; is there any such thing?

Characters talk of reincarnation, but Ursula's experience is not quite that; she lives the same life over and over, not one life after another in different bodies. But this book certainly fleshes out all those delicious or terrifying 'what if' ruminations that all of us indulge in from time to time.

* though I did feel that the Jackson Brodie series ran out of steam slightly towards the end.



After the publication of Boneland, Alan Garner said that he regarded all his nine novels as really one novel: after reading Thursbitch, I think I understand what he means.

Thursbitch (named for a valley in the Pennines) is an adult novel. It grew from a (real) memorial stone by the side of a track, which reads Here John Turner was cast away in a heavy snow storm in the night in or about 1755; the print of a woman's shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead.

From this mysterious seed, Garner weaves a double tale, of two couples separated by time: Jack and Nan Sarah in the eighteenth century, and Ian and Sal in the twenty-first. Jack is the guardian of an ancient rite, and a jagger -- a travelling trader; Nan Sarah is his wife. Ian is a scientist and a priest, Sal a geologist; they were once a couple, but now Ian is Sal's carer as she grows slowly weaker from a degenerative illness. Their twinned stories, of faith and ritual, different kinds of knowledge, illness and grief, cross and divide through time but not through space, echoing and united in this place of grim power with its standing stones and ancient springs.

I found many resonances with the later Boneland, which also centres on a grief-struck and suffering man, as well as Red Shift, which also uses the technique of parallel narratives. Though Thursbitch is a slim novel, there is much meat to chew on. One day I will read all Garner's novels back to back. What a rewarding experience that will be.


The Pattern in the Carpet

Margaret Drabble's The Pattern in the Carpet is one of those strange unclassifiable books that give marketing departments a headache. Part memoir, part history, part reflection, it's been subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws, which is as good a summary as any.

Margaret Drabble was possibly my first adult author crush; I read The Millstone at about fourteen and recognised myself in the character of Rosamund, solitary and almost pathologically independent, scholarly and paranoid about causing any kind of inconvenience to others (Rosamund, as I did too eventually, breaks out of this diffidence when she has to defend her baby). I've read most, but not all of Drabble's novels over the past few decades. I was vaguely irritated by The Pure Gold Baby, which I found meandering and unsatisfying.

The Pattern in the Carpet was also meandering, but perhaps because it wasn't a novel, this time I found its detours charming rather than annoying. Drabble reminisces about her childhood, about the satisfactions of jigsaws and puzzles and their history (beginning with 'dissected maps' as an educational tool and gradually becoming purely pleasurable time-wasters). Many authors are apparently addicted to jigsaws, finding their purely visual meditation an effective antidote to wrestling with words. I have found this myself (though lately I've taken up piano and knitting as similar non-verbal occupations).

This memoir is itself built up from interlocking pieces, jumping from the origins of children's books to the appeal of twee rural nostalgia to the sad biography of Alison Uttley to conversations with London taxi drivers to Roman mosaics to the incredible flower collages of Mary Delany, in short, entertaining chapters.

I was very sad to learn that Drabble's daughter Becky , who is mentioned several times in the text, died of cancer earlier this year. This added an extra layer of poignancy to the text. The Pattern in the Carpet is not quite the slim stocking-filler that Drabble initially envisaged, but it was a diverting and intriguing journey.


Openly Straight

Confession: I didn't really expect to enjoy this book much. I really bought it for Evie, because I thought it seemed like the kind of book she'd like (and indeed she is just about to read it). I thought it would be one of those overly earnest, American YA novels where all the characters are impossibly witty and everything is heavy with feels. (John Green has a lot to answer for!)

And early on, Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight did seem to be that kind of book. But gradually I started to realise, this is actually really good. Emotional, yes, but subtly so. Witty dialogue, yes, but also moments of excruciating awkwardness. Funny, and complex, and interesting.

I happened to notice the back flap and saw the imprint 'Arthur Levine.' Aha! My very own US publisher, an imprint with excellent taste in manuscripts. Hastily I consulted the acknowledgments and saw a thank you to Cheryl Klein, pearl among editors. With such a pedigree, how could Openly Straight fail to be good?

The novel has a great premise. Rafe is sick and tired of being 'the gay kid' at his school. He's sure the label is getting in the way of his getting to know people properly, and he's not even getting a boyfriend out of it! So when he crosses the country to change schools, he decides that at Natick, he won't be 'the gay kid.' Not going back in the closet, just not telling people unless they ask him directly (standing in the doorway, as he puts it). He just wants to be 'normal' for a while.

But of course things are not that simple. Yes, he gets to experience being 'one of the boys' without the complication of his sexuality getting in the way. But when he starts to make real friends, when he finds himself falling in love, it's his lie of omission which starts to get in the way.

This is a really terrific book and I thoroughly enjoyed its bittersweet exploration of labels, identity, acceptance, friendship, love and celebration.


The Bell Family

Ah! Reading a Noel Streatfeild novel, even one I haven't read before (amazing to think that such a book exists...), is like slipping into a lovely warm bath. The ultimate comfort read!

The Bell Family began life as a radio serial on the BBC, and it contains all the familiar Streatfeild ingredients: money worries, family fun and quarrels, a child who wants to become a dancer. The Bell family live in a London vicarage and finances are tight. Alex and Cathy are the patient, loving parents; Paul, the eldest son, wants to be a doctor, but his grandfather is pressuring him to join the family business; Jane would be a dancer if only there was money to pay for her training. Ginnie ('Miss Virginia Bell') is impulsive and always getting herself into scrapes, and Angus is the youngest, musical and funny. The last member of the family is the adored dog, Esau, and then there is Mrs Gage, another familiar Streatfeild character, the comfortable, down-to-earth family helper, who appears to work as a full time cook and housekeeper for little more than love alone.

The Bells seem to live in roughly the same area of London as the setting for Call the Midwife, and at roughly the same time, though their troubles are far less severe than those described by Jennifer Worth. The genteel poor is a category Streatfeild is very comfortable with, and so am I! The delightful Shirley Hughes illustrations are the perfect complement to the gentle story.

Apparently there is another book about the Bell family. But given it took me this long to find the first volume (thank you, Brown & Bunting!), I doubt that I'll ever be able to track down the sequel.


The Adventure of English

It's taken me a long time to get through this volume -- not because it's not interesting, but I became a bit bogged down in the latter stages. Based on a TV programme Melvyn Bragg made in the early 2000s (which I would really love to see!), The Adventure of English is a journey through the history of our language, its diverse origins, the moments when it was in most danger of being overtaken, its many divergences and meldings, and its likely future as a global tongue.

I most enjoyed the first part of the book which traced the Old English, Norse and Norman roots of the language we speak and write today. I have read heaps of histories of the English language and perhaps now I've reached my limit! The place where I stuck was probably around the chapters on American English (sorry to my American readers, if I have any...) But there were some really interesting chapters on black English (which I was reading, coincidentally, when we watched Twelve Years A Slave the other night), West Indian English, accent snobbery and Indian English. But of course I turned eagerly to the chapter on Australian English and found it full of inaccuracies, so perhaps I should take the rest of Bragg's insights with more than a grain of salt!


Big Magic

I'd wanted to read Big Magic for a while, and I am one of the millions who enjoyed Eat Pray Love and (to a lesser extent) Committed, so when I saw it on my friend Chris's shelf, I grabbed it.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a chatty, disarming, insistent companion, with a refreshing respect for the role of luck and chance in the creative journey. In this book she is determined to convince the reader that you, too, can live a creative life -- write, paint, knit, research, whatever -- and be richer for the experience (not necessarily financially richer, as she's at pains to point out!)

There are lots of lovely things to share here. I love the notion that ideas float through the ether, searching for a receptive home -- Gilbert maintains that one such idea for a novel was passed via a kiss from herself to Ann Patchett. I've also had this experience where someone else produces 'my' idea before I can manage to get it out there, and it rings true to me that ideas have an independent existence and a will to live.

I also agree with Gilbert's refusal to fetishise the trope of the Suffering Artist; her focus on joy in creation rather than material success; her insistence that curiosity will serve you better than passion; and her belief that it's essential to trust enough to keep putting your work out there, even if there's no response, or not the response you hoped for.

But ironically the very fact that I agreed with so much of what Gilbert says means that this book was not really written for me. I already know that I have to be persistent, to seek enchantment, to have courage, to not expect that writing will support me. I don't feel I need permission to pursue my craft. I'm already following her advice. Which doesn't mean it's bad advice -- it's excellent advice -- but that I'm not massively in need of it. Not today, anyway!


I Own the Racecourse!

This week I was asked to take part in a radio discussion of I Own the Racecourse!, which has necessitated a quick re-read. (Tomorrow morning, 2SER Final Draft, if you're interested...)

A few years ago, I was asked to write the introduction to this new edition of Patricia Wrightson's beloved 1968 novel. I was hugely flattered, of course, but I'm not sure why Text approached me, perhaps because Crow Country had just won the Patricia Wrightson Prize at the NSW Premier's Awards, or because people were making comparisons between Wrightson's handling of Indigenous magic and the similar subject matter of Crow Country. But the magic at play in I Own the Racecourse! is of a very different kind, and nothing to do with Aboriginal culture.

Andy Hoddel is different from the other boys who skateboard and play cricket and scrounge for scrap on the streets of Appington Hill; though Wrightson never explicitly says so, he is intellectually disabled. He is vulnerable, and easily conned into thinking that he is the new owner of the racecourse. Indulged by the workers at the track, Andy's delusion becomes so deeply ingrained that, though his friends try to protect him, everyone, even the Committee themselves, end up going along with it.

I had never read I Own the Racecourse! and strangely it turned out that I had a different, very personal connection to this particular novel. My sister, born the year after this book was published, also has an intellectual disability, and I could recognise her in Andy: her vulnerability, her stubbornness, her eagerness to belong. I found it impossible to write a truthful response to the book without talking about her.

This sparked off a deep discussion within my family. Should I write about something so private? How would my sister feel about it? Did she even think of herself as intellectually disabled? Believe it or not, this was not something we ever spoke about within the family. Asking my sister what she thought, giving her the introduction to read and approve, and discussing it with her, ended up being a really therapeutic process for the whole family and something that was long overdue.

As I say in the introduction, I just wish my sister had had a group of friends like Andy's.


My Brilliant Friend

Appropriately, this book was a birthday present from my brilliant friend, Sandra Eterovic. I think I felt rather intimidated about reading this novel, as the series has received so much praise -- but now the Neapolitan fever has cooled somewhat, I've finally managed to hop onto the Elena Ferrante bandwagon (have I mixed enough metaphors there?)

My Brilliant Friend, as everybody surely knows by now, is the story of two friends, Lila and Lena, growing up in a poor district of Naples in the 1950s. Right until the very end, I assumed that the 'brilliant friend' of the title was Lila, being described by Lena, the narrator; but it turns out that it's Lila, describing Lena. The two girls are both very clever, sometimes rivals, each driving the other to greater feats of excellence, but as Lena notes, they seem bound by some mysterious fate whereby Lila thrives when Lena's life is hard, and vice versa.

This is a very people-focused novel, with little physical description of the setting. But it still paints a vivid picture of 1950s Naples. Maybe it helped that I've been there? My heart was wrung for these two young girls who are forced to grow up so fast, the age of my own daughters. Despite their brains and their strength, they are so much at the mercy of their parents, the local boys and men, the judgements of the neighborhood. You long for them to burst free and taste the joys they deserve, and there are hints that this might be possible. I just hope I don't lose track of all the characters and their complicated, intertwining histories.

Three more books to go, and I'm hooked.


Joe Cinque's Consolation

Once again, a book read years ago has drawn me to a film, which has in turn sent me back to the original book. This week it was Joe Cinque's Consolation which screened on SBS on Friday night. Though Helen Garner's book deals with the legal and moral aftermath of the killing, the film focuses instead on the events leading up to Joe Cinque's death; so when I returned to the book, I had a clear picture in my mind of what had gone before.

I say a clear picture, but in fact the events are far from clear; they swirl in a muddy, ambiguous tangle of intention, possible psychosis, passivity and grief. Cinque was drugged with Rohypnol and then injected with heroin by his girlfriend, Anu Singh, who had been talking for a long time about suicide and was judged to have been suffering from mental illness. Her friend Madhavi Rao helped her acquire the heroin and plan the bizarre "farewell" dinner parties which preceded the killing -- she was cleared of all charges.

Garner grapples with the questions of culpability and guilt that this scenario throws up. If Singh was mentally ill (something Garner seems to never quite accept), then who bears responsibility for Cinque's death? Did Rao have a duty to prevent Singh from acting, to call the police, to call for an ambulance? Legally, apparently she did not; but what about morally? Again and again Garner circles back to the brute fact that "Joe Cinque is dead." What is his death worth? Who will pay? She befriends Cinque's wounded, dignified parents, and ultimately seems to see her own moral duty as a kind of bearing witness to their pain, to making sure that this gentle young man Joe is not forgotten.

I've read absolutely scathing reviews of this book which find Garner racist, sexist, judgmental, self-absorbed. I'm inclined to be a little more lenient, and I think Garner is not unaware of her own compromised position in telling this story and the sides she chooses. But I guess I choose to be forgiving mostly because of the sheer crystalline quality of Helen Garner's writing. I raced through this book in less than an evening, utterly gripped, thrown this way and that by the force of the big questions Garner ruthlessly pursues and is brave enough to leave unresolved.


Encounter in Eltham

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being a guest at the Eltham Festival of Stories at Eltham Library (that's me on the right, above). It was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with some old friends, and meet some new ones, like Ailsa Wild, author of the Squishy Taylor series (she's the cool one in the middle), and the lovely Teagan who interviewed us both with panache (she's the one with the mic).

The topic of our panel was 'Where Do Stories Come From?' and I'd expected to be talking mostly about Crow Country, which is my best-known book. But as it happened, the lovely Teagan wasn't able to get hold of Crow Country -- all the copies were out from the library, which is nice to know! -- and she read New Guinea Moon instead. So I mostly talked about that.

New Guinea Moon is partly based on my own childhood memories of growing up in the Highlands of PNG in the 1970s. My father was a pilot, and my memories of the Mt Hagen ex-pat community and my later adult unease with their colonial attitudes, even at the time of Independence, were at the centre of the novel.

After we spoke, as always happens when I talk about New Guinea Moon, members of the audience came up to say that they, too, had a connection with PNG. It amazes me that so many Australians have a personal history with our nearest neighbour, and yet PNG receives so little attention (compared to say, the UK!) and we know so little about the place. Someone always wants to tell me, my aunt was a missionary or my grandfather was an engineer or even, I grew up there too.

This time a woman came up to say that her uncle had also been a pilot in the Highlands, from the 1970s until he was killed in a crash in the early 2000s. I asked his name, but somehow I already knew the answer. I remembered her uncle vividly. He had worked with my father and been a good friend of my parents; we'd all been shocked to hear of his death, which featured in a story on the ABC's Foreign Correspondent a few years ago. In fact, the character of Tony in New Guinea Moon was partly based on my memories of him. We both ended the conversation in tears.

It's strange how sometimes what seem to be the most personal, private stories end up being the ones that other people find most easy to share. And what a coincidence that she had happened to attend this particular session on this particular day, and that I'd happened to discuss this particular book. It turned a lovely day into a really special experience.


Holding the Man

I happened to catch the 2015 film of Holding the Man the other night on SBS (it was excellent) and it prompted me to hunt out the book, which I hadn't read since its first publication in 1995.

Holding the Man is a memoir by Timothy Conigrave, about his relationship with John Caleo. They fell in love as schoolboys at a Catholic private school in Melbourne in the 1970s, moved to Sydney, and became caught up in the horrific AIDS epidemic of the 1990s. Conigrave writes simply and almost unbearably movingly of his and Caleo's illness, and Caleo's death. Conigrave died ten days after completing Holding the Man, and it was published posthumously to great acclaim.

I had forgotten how funny and honest, and how sexy, the early parts of this book are, perfectly describing the thrills of young love (especially forbidden love!). But the prejudice of their families, and the stigma that clung to AIDS, are painful to read, and timely in the current climate. It would be nice to think that we have progressed as a society in the last twenty years, and I believe we have; but only up to a point.

Reading about Conigrave and Caleo's treatment brought back all the terminology that was part of our lives in the 1990s, words I had forgotten -- AZT, T-cell counts, PCP, Karposi's sarcoma. But the story of their unwavering love is very moving, and I was forcibly struck by the account of the loving friendship and support that surrounded the couple. Though the epidemic was a terrifying and devastating time, it did prove the amazing strength and generosity of the gay community. That's a good thing to remember.


Iris and the Tiger

This book was a gift from my wonderfully talented friend Sandra Eterovic, who made the cover art and the internal illustrations. She is so clever!

Iris and the Tiger is the first junior fiction (I think!) from accomplished local YA author Leanne Hall. Twelve year old Iris has travelled to Spain to meet her eccentric great-aunt Ursula; she is also on a secret mission for her parents, to check out any possible rival heirs to Ursula's estate, Bosque de Nubes (Forest of Clouds). But nothing is as it seems in this magical place, and Iris soon finds a multitude of secrets to explore and riddles to solve.

This is a fantastic concept for a story, expertly combining a cast of intriguing characters, an enticing setting, and the world of surrealist art. Iris and the Tiger has a marvellous, mysterious atmosphere, where sunflowers play tennis on an overgrown court, giant steaks drape over balconies, trees have eyeballs, and tigers might escape from paintings to run wild in the woods. In fact there is so much going on that I found myself occasionally muddled about what exactly was going on; this is a novel that rewards close attention, and there is plenty of fun for adult readers picking up the artsy allusions. This is a gorgeous book, inside and out.


A Leg To Stand On

One of the ugliest covers I think I've ever seen! But I'm now committed to reading everything that Oliver Sacks has ever written, so I didn't pay any attention to the packaging, and dived into the contents of A Leg To Stand On.

This slim volume, first published in 1984, is Sacks' account of an accident and serious injury he sustained as a young man, falling down a mountain in Norway. The operation to mend the injury went well, but in the aftermath of recovery, Sacks experienced an unexpected and to him, inexplicable, sense of alienation from his own limb. He felt that this leg was an utterly foreign object, unconnected to his sense of self, unable to be controlled, horrifying and even disgusting. Eventually this feeling was overcome, but not by thinking and brooding -- only by unself-consciously doing and actually using the leg, was it joyfully re-integrated and truly recovered.

The most striking thing about this experience was the degree to which Sacks felt unable to communicate how he was feeling to the doctors, nurses and therapists, even with the advantage of his own medical standing. Only with fellow patients was he really able to express what he'd been through and discover that such feelings were quite common. Hopefully this book, and Sacks' research, has led to greater awareness.

Sacks also expresses beautifully the journey of every patient -- from the intense terror and dread of being struck down by injury or illness, the relief of rescue and sense of safety when treatment commences, the delicious sensation of being excused from normal life, when it's enough just to be still alive, and the ultimate chafing at restriction and desire to reconnect with the world again. I found this memoir extremely moving, in every sense.


The Mirror Image Ghost

Picked this up at Brown and Bunting because I admire the powerful Marianne Dreams by the same author (Catherine Storr). Annoyingly, Marianne Dreams has gone missing from my bookshelves, I must have lent it to someone and neglected to chase it up.

I wasn't aware of The Mirror Image Ghost but it's an interesting, eerie little book. It's probably too light on plot to appeal to most of today's junior readers, but I thought it wove together several story strands with deftness and subtlety, and I would have loved it if it had been around when I was about ten or eleven.

Lisa's mother has just remarried and now Lisa finds herself saddled with a French step-sister and -brother whom she intensely dislikes. The tensions of a blended family are well-drawn. Her beloved grandfather lost his family in the Second World War but no-one wants to talk about exactly what happened (the adult reader can guess easily, but a child reader is led gently toward the revelation of the Holocaust). Meanwhile Lisa is glimpsing snippets of the past in an old mirror; will she discover the secrets on her own? And is she herself a part of the story?

The Mirror Image Ghost doesn't have the punch of Marianne Dreams, and though it was first published in 1994, it has the feel of a much older book. Not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned, but it might put other people off!