Friday, 30 June 2017

The Hate Race

David Marr is one of my favourite writers. As a journalist he digs deep, researching his subject with an eagle-eyed intensity, and pulling out the story behind the known biography. As a writer he is sharp, quick-witted and empathetic.

So when his Quarterly Essay (QE65) on Pauline Hanson arrived, I was thrilled to spend a weekend in Marr's company.  I was not disappointed.

The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race, takes that which is known about Pauline Hanson and adds layers of analysis to explain her personal and political resilience and her attraction to segments of the electorate. Marr is interested in what makes Hanson tick. More importantly he seeks to discover what has happened to Australia and who we are today. He asks "what role does race play in the politics of the country?"

Hanson is a great lens to look at Australia's race politics through. She has made her career by denigrating Aboriginals, shrieking about Australia being 'swamped' by Asians, and more recently by calling for an inquiry into Islam and wanting Muslim immigration stopped. Her outspoken and often off-the-cuff comments demonstrate that she is media-savvy and knows what stunts will get her the publicity she desires. She preys on fear and manufactures panic.

Rather than condemn her as a racist, Prime Minister John Howard carefully adopted some of her views in order to attract voters from the margins. It is a fine line that the government and opposition walk daily as she now has some influence in the Senate. How do you call her out as a racist without condemning her voters are such?

In exploring race and politics, Marr looks at data from the Australian Electoral Study to try to understand whether the country is becoming more racist. He picks apart the demographics of current One Nation voters and what drives them. Marr is clear that Hanson is no Trump and she is not riding a wave of populism like Brexit. He argues she is not capable of withstanding sustained scrutiny and her star may fade before the next election.

While elections are won and lost on the fringes - the marginal electorates where more extreme views come to play - Marr points out that most Australians are in the middle, more optimistic and have more liberal views. There is reason to hope that Hanson and her ilk will slink off to the sidelines, but only if we all continue to challenge her hateful, racist views.

Also included in this issue were several thought-provoking responses to the previous Quarterly Essay (QE64) The Australian Dream by Stan Grant. Well worth reading.

I have previously enjoyed and recommend David Marr's Quarterly Essays on:

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Family Ties

Back in 2013 I read Gillian Flynn's bestseller Gone Girl (2012) and really enjoyed it as a gripping page-turner with an unreliable narrator. I then looked for Flynn's previous novels - Dark Places (2009) and Sharp Objects (2006) but somehow got distracted with other books and never read them.

On a recent holiday I was keen for a good thriller, so decided to read Flynn's second novel Dark Places. The protagonist is Libby Day, an adult who has never quite found her place in the world. When Libby was only seven, her mother and two sisters were killed in a horrific crime. Libby testified against her fifteen year old brother Ben, who is currently serving life in prison.

Broke and unemployed, Libby takes up a paid speaking engagement from a group obsessed with the Day murders. Conspiracy theories abound, and many are convinced that Ben did not commit the crimes for which he has been jailed. Libby then had to confront her past, her memory of events, and unpick what happened.

What I liked about the story was the way in which the narrative switched from the present to the past, so we could see what transpired in the lead up to the murders and the aftermath. Being familiar with Flynn's writing, I anticipated that there would be more than a few red herrings and twists. I also appreciate that the characters are largely unlikeable, which appeals to me as a reader.

However there were a number of frustrations that drove me crazy. Many characters were underdeveloped (e.g. Diondra, Ben) and Libby was so boring that it was hard to care for her. There are grotesque descriptions of cruelty to animals and violence towards people that is both gratuitous and unnecessary. But the worst offence in this thriller is that the ending is totally implausible and rushed (there is no way the characters would have made the decisions they did on the day of the murders). As such, I won't be in a hurry to read other Flynn books.

A film of Dark Places was made in 2015 with Charlize Theron in the lead role. I have not seen it.

So, if you are looking for a good thriller, this ain't it. I would recommend you turn your attentions to the Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) or to some recent Australian thrillers like Jane Harper's The Dry and Emily Maguire's An Isolated Incident.