Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Shop around the Corner

When I knew I would be meeting Asne Seierstad at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May this year, I grabbed my old copy of her bestselling book The Bookseller of Kabul (2002) and asked her to sign it for me. I had purchased it back when it came out, and I would have sworn that I had read it as the story was so familiar to me. I must have picked it up and flicked through it, but never actually read it entirely.

After reading Seierstad's latest book One of Us (2015) about Anders Breivik, I thought it would be good to return to her earlier work and be sure that I had read it. A committed journalist, Seierstad immersed herself in the story and with her sharp, enquiring mind she crafted a compelling story.

Seierstad arrived in Kabul in September 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. She donned a burka and went to live with a bookseller and his extended family for four months, during which time she acquired the material for this book. She learns from the family about Afghanistan during the Taliban, about the role of women in society and about the hopes, dreams and fears of this unhappy family.

The Bookseller, his wives, children and extended family live in a few rooms in Kabul. He operates a popular book store, as well as several stalls in hotel lobbies, and has a number of lucrative contracts printing text books in Pakistan.

The patriarch may be an intellectual and a good business man, but he rules his family like a dictator. He speaks openly about women's rights - to work, to dress in Western attire, etc - but keeps his women at home in strictly gendered roles. His sons are not educated as they must constantly work for him. His cruelty is shown in his persistence with an impoverished carpenter who took some of the booksellers postcards, demanding that he be jailed for the crime.

But it is the women in the family who Seierstad devotes much empathy. Sharifa, the bookseller's first wife, who is sent off to Pakistan without a moment's thought when a teenage Sonja catches his eye. Leila, the bookseller's sister, who slaves after her brother and nephews while dreaming of becoming a teacher and finding a life of her own. Bibi Gul, the mother, who seeks comfort in food.

I really enjoyed this book and Seierstad's writing. Her depiction of the pervasive dust, the bureaucracy, the danger, and the desire are all brought to life. I have previously read fictional accounts of Afghani life, such as Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) which I found to be gripping tales (but read long before I started blogging). In parts Bookseller reminded me a lot of Splendid Suns, and the plight of girls and women. Well worth a read.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Dear Life

At the Sydney Writers' Festival in May 2015 I had the pleasure of listening to Australian author Kate Grenville talk about her latest book, One Life (2015), a memoir of her mother.

Nance was born in 1912 to rural publicans Bert and Dolly Russell. She  felt unloved as a child, continually being sent to live with relatives and wrenched apart from her beloved brother Frank. Her family struggled with their small businesses, and the relationship between her parents was not warm.

Determined not to become her mother, Nance pursued an education. Uncommon for her time, Nance went to the University of Sydney and studied to became a pharmacist. Grenville described in detail the sacrifices Nance made to study and work in order to graduate and join the profession.

As a young woman, Nance was wooed by a number of suitors. She decided upon Ken Gee, a lawyer with Marxist leanings, and married him. The depiction of her marriage is heartbreaking. Ken was always distant, in love with his ideas. She desires warmth and feels trapped because of the children.

The second world war hits and money is tight, Nance goes back to work facing every mother's child care dilemma.  She studies the business carefully and decides she can do this herself, opening her own pharmacy on Sydney's northern beaches. She stares down the sexism she faces from suppliers and customers, and gets on with the job.

I really enjoyed this book. One Life is such a loving tribute to Nance Gee, with Grenville portraying her as a whole woman, a gifted professional, a feminist and a mother. She was a woman of her time. During the SWF, Grenville said she wanted wanted to publish a memoir because the stories of the lives of ordinary women are never told. Through Nance we learn of twenty-first century Sydney and gain an important perspective on the events that shaped our world (the Depression, WWII etc).

More importantly, through Nance we reflect on love, commitment, family, and the ties that bind. Nance comes alive in this memoir, with Grenville's masterful storytelling applied to Nance's own words. My only quibble is that the story fades too soon, rushing through Nance's later years too quickly. I would have liked to have learned more of the older Nance. That said, I recommend this book highly.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

And the Winner is....

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings has just won the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

Based on the 1976 attempted murder of Bob Marley, it tells the story of Jamaican politics and culture from the 1970s to the 1990s.

I have not yet read this but I am looking forward to it.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Bohemian Rhapsody

Emily Bitto's debut novel The Strays (2014) won the 2015 Stella Prize for fiction, and deservedly so. This is a beautiful, intellectual novel which showcases Bitto's talents.

It is the 1980s and art history lecturer Lily receives an invitation to attend a gallery retrospective of the works of Evan Trentham, a controversial artist that changed the Australian art scene decades earlier. Immediately Lily is catapulted back to her childhood memories of growing up in the 1930s with her best friend Eva Trentham, Evan's daughter. What follows is Lily's reminiscences of her childhood and a story of love, friendship and betrayal.

Only child Lily lives at home with her parents after relocating to Melbourne. She is lonely and in need of company from someone her own age. At school she befriends Eva and is quickly incorporated into Eva's bohemian family which is so dissimilar to her own, providing her the sense of belonging she has longed for.

The Trenthams have captivated the Melbourne art scene - modernist Evan and his wife Helena with her cool beauty. They have created a haven and gathered stray artists to live and work among them, free from the pressures of bills and jobs, where they can devote themselves entirely to their creative endeavours. Calling themselves the Melbourne Modern Art Group, they challenge traditional art and push the boundaries. Maria, Ugo, Jerome and others join the colony.

With the adults focussed on themselves and their art, the Trentham's daughters - Beatrice, Eva and Heloise - have grow up largely unsupervised. They spend their days among the gardens of the Trentham's home and their nights around adult parties and conversations about art, poetry, and politics. Lily becomes yet another stray, spending all her time as a hanger-on in this household.

As Lily and Eva enter their teenage years things change and the intensity of their relationship is tested. Lily reflects back on the various paths she and the Trentham girls take and how their lives intersect and intertwine over the subsequent decades.

I really loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. Bitto is a genuine talent and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.