Monday, 18 May 2020

Shakespeare's Sorrow

Eleven-year-old Hamnet Shakespeare is running through the village of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Unable to locate his mother, he seeks out the local doctor to visit his twin sister Judith who is in bed with a mysterious illness. When their mother comes home it will take all of her knowledge of herbs and potions to save her daughter from the plague. While one child is healed, Hamnet succumbs to the illness, leaving the entire family bereft.

Maggie O'Farrell has taken what little is known about Shakespeare's family life and turned it into an extraordinary historical novel. While the book is named for the son, it is his mother Agnes (Anne Hathaway) who takes centre stage. She is known among the townsfolk as a mystic healer, gathering berries and plants from the forest to brew medicinal concoctions which cure all ailments.

When she was 26 she married her brothers' latin teacher, an eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare, and they had their first child a few months later. Unable to be independent of Shakespeare's family, they resided in an apartment attached to the family home. Eventually Shakespeare goes off to London, leaving his wife and three young children behind, and Hamnet tells the story of how his wife endured his absence.

O'Farrell has a beautiful way with words and the way she describes the grief felt by different family members is heartfelt. Shakespeare himself channels this despair into his play Hamlet a few years later. As a reader, I immersed myself in this tale and was transported to sixteenth century England, engrossed in the daily life of this family.

Shortlisted for the Women's Prize, I am thrilled that O'Farrell will get a wide readership with this remarkable novel. A friend introduced me to Maggie O'Farrell in the early years of this century, sending me her debut novel After You'd Gone (2000) and My Lover's Lover (2002). I also really enjoyed The Distance Between Us (2004) and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2007). Hamnet showcases the evolution of her writing.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Miles Franklin Award Longlist 2020

The Miles Franklin Award is the most prestigious literary award in Australia, with a cash prize of $60,000 and the opportunity to join the ranks of past winners including Melissa Lucashenko, Frank Morehouse, Tim Winton, David Malouf, Peter Carey, Sofie Laguna and Anna Funder.

The 2020 Longlist was announced today with some incredible authors and titles nominated.

The Longlist is:

Tony Birch - The White Girl - In the 1960s Deane is a dying country town. Aboriginal Odette Brown cares for her granddaughter Sissy, conceived in rape by a white pastoralist. The girl's mother Lila has fled after her trauma. When a new policeman arrives in Deane he is determined to enforce the law, which would see the fair-skinned girl removed from her family. In this novel, Birch explores the horrendous Australian government policy, the Aborigines Protection Act and the impact on Stolen Generations.

Melanie Cheng - Room for a Stranger - Seventy-year-old Meg has been on her own since her sister died. But an intruder causes her to rethink her solo life. She advertises for a room mate and 21 year old student Andy moves in. The two have little in common and have to bridge divides of culture, age and gender to find connection. Cheng is a Melbourne-based writer who won the 2016 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Unpublished Manuscript for her short story collection Australia Day (2017).

Peggy Frew - Islands - Two sisters, Junie and Anna, observe their family disintegrate. Their parents' marriage falls apart and Helen leaves John in the hopes of finding the life she is after. John is unable to cope and care for his girls. Anna becomes rebellious and at age 15 she disappears from home forcing the family to  deal with their trauma. Frew was shortlisted for the Stella Prize for her previous novel, Hope Farm (2015).

John Hughes - No One - In the wee hours of the morning, a driver feels a thud against his car outside Redfern Station. He eventually stops and inspects the vehicle to find a dent and some blood. Did he hit someone? As the driver searches for his victim, he begins a relationship with a local Aboriginal woman. This novella is written by the award winning author of The Idea of Home: Autobiographical Essays (2004).

Anna Krien  - Act of Grace - In her debut novel, Krien has pulled together diverse characters whose lives become intertwined. Traversing around the globe and across generations, Krien tackles deep themes of reconciliation, climate change and war. Best known for her narrative non-fiction works (Into the Woods, Night Games, Quarterly Essays) she is ambitious in her subject matter. This novel has also been shortlisted for the 2020 Victorian Premier's Literary Award.

Gerald Murnane - A Season on Earth - Published in full over forty years after writing, this is Murnane's unabridged second novel. He had published the first half of it in 1976 as A Lifetime on Clouds, but the second half was never published. Adrian Sherd is a high school student at a Catholic school in Melbourne who fantasises about a girl he sees at mass. Later, he decides to become a priest, but still lives largely in a fantasy world.

Philip Salom - The Returns - Elizabeth is a freelance book editor who rents a room in her inner city Melbourne house to Trevor, a bookshop owner. These two eccentric, middle age house mates are both haunted by their pasts - an absent child, a broken marriage, ailing or missing parents. Author Salom is a poet and novelist who has previous success with his critically acclaimed novel Waiting (2016)

Carrie Tiffany - Exploded View - Set in the 1970s, a young girl lives with her mother, brother and her stepfather in the suburbs. He is a mechanic, fixing cars at the back of their yard. This is a story of childhood trauma and family abuse from the perspective of the girl as the family leaves on a road trip together. Tiffany is a well regarded author and her previous novel Mateship with Birds (2012) won the inaugural Stella Prize.

Tara June Winch - The YieldWiradjuri author Tara June Winch tells the tale of the Gondiwindi family. The ageing Albert wants to pass on language and storytelling to the next generation. His granddaughter August returns home to find the family land repossessed. Through this work, Winch tells a story about the importance of Indigenous identity, language and culture. Winch recently received the NSW Premier's Literary Award - Book of the Year, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction making her a hot contender for this award. 
Charlotte Wood - The Weekend - Wood won the Stella prize in 2016 for her novel The Natural Way of Things - the book I most recommended and gave to others that year.  The Weekend is the story of four older women who have been friends for a lifetime. When one dies, their friendship changes. This is a brilliant novel that I highly recommend (read review).

At this stage I have only read Charlotte Wood's brilliant The Weekend. If I had to guess though, I reckon that Birch, Cheng, Murnane, Winch and Wood will make the shortlist. The Shortlist will be announced 17 June 2020 and the winner will be revealed on 16 July 2020.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

On the Beach

Howard Ingham, having achieved mild success as a novelist, arrives in Tunisia in mid-1967 to work on a film script he has been commissioned to write by director John Castlewood. He sets himself up at a beachfront hotel in Hammamet and awaits news of Castlewood's arrival or a letter from his girlfriend Ina who remains in New York.

While he waits, Ingham starts a new novel about a bank forger, and observes news of the Six-Day War taking place in the Middle East. He befriends an American expat named Adams who resides in a neighbouring beach hut and revels in conspiracy theories. He also comes close to Jensen, a gay Danish painter. Ingham finally receives a letter from home in which he learns that Castlewood is dead. Ingham is at a loss, trying to decide whether to return to Ina in New York or stay on in Tunisia to complete his novel.

Over the days and weeks he spends in Tunisia, Ingham's morality changes. He has much time to himself to observe those around him and reflect on his own thoughts and actions. One night he is wakened by an intruder entering his bungalow. Ingham throws his typewriter at the intruder, knocking him back, and then locks the door. Ingham sits quietly inside as he hears hotel staff removing the intruder, not knowing if the man was injured or dead. This event will haunt Ingham as he does not know the impact of his actions and what will happen to him if discovered.

The Tremor of Forgery (1969) is slow, deep and thoughtful. The reader experiences the same apprehension that Ingham feels, waiting for something to happen just as he waits for letters from home. Highsmith's use of Ingham's novel to explore his own moral ambiguity is a clever device. Along the way we observe the local culture, customs and traditions through the eyes of the protagonist, a stranger in a strange land. Ingham's road trip with Jensen made me long to explore Tunisia.

Patricia Highsmith has crafted a compelling and unique tale of morality, love and self-preservation. The apparent simplicity of the story, despite the deep and complex themes, showcases Highsmith's talents. Highly recommended.

Dark Obsession

David Kelsey has everything going for him. He has a great job as an engineer and is admired by his colleagues. He has purchased and fitted out a lovely home and is planning his marriage to his beloved Annabelle. He just has one problem, which he refers to as 'the Situation'. 

The Situation David has to fix is that Annabelle is not yet his. Despite his letters and calls, in which David confesses his love for her, Annabelle is married to another and does not share his affection. This does not stop David from imagining their life together. Indeed, on weekends when he returns to their home, he pours two martinis and imagines her there with him. 

In This Sweet Sickness (1960) Patricia Highsmith's psychological thriller, she has created a fascinating character in David. Readers begin by empathising with him, feeling as though he has a crush that he will get over. But as the novel progresses you realise how deeply disturbed he is and how he has crafted the identity of his alter-ego, William Neumeister, to be all the things he is not as his mind unravels. 

Of course it wouldn't be a Highsmith novel without a crime and David seems to get away with his, taking increasing risks and telling more lies until he cannot seperate fact from fiction. One has to feel for the women in David's life: Annabelle tries to let him down gently and encourage him to direct his affections to Effie, a local girl who is interested in him. David's obsession becomes more irrational and creepy as the novel progresses.

I really enjoyed this book. If I had one quibble it would be that it peaked too soon with the crime which exposes David/William's double life and loses a bit of momentum before the rapid-pace of the final chapters. But ultimately this is a fascinating character study which gets under the reader's skin.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

The Book of Harlem

Just before the libraries were closed, I borrowed Zora Neale Hurston's collection of stories Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick (2020). I was keen to get my hands on this new release as it has been many years since I last read Hurston.

I usually don't read introductions to books until after I have read the main text. Too often I find introductions serve as pretentious spoilers. I prefer to read, reflect and then read the introduction to see if there was something I missed. But for Straight Lick I began with the forward by Tayari Jones and Genevieve West's brilliant introduction which explained the context in which these stories were written and the ways in which Hurston explored race, gender and class through her narratives.

Hurston published her first short story in 1921, finding her place in the Harlem Renaissance alongside Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and other writers and poets. This collection brings together Hurston's early work and, by presenting her stories in chronological order, readers can see how she honed her craft as her writing evolved.

Her first story, 'John Reddington Goes to Sea' was magnificent. John wants to explore the world, while his father wants him to stay home and marry a local girl. The conflict between the two men is heartfelt, earnest and loving. Hurston's writing took a little time to get used to as she writes dialogue so you can hear the voice of the speaker ('Ah keep telling yur, woman, 'taint so') so reading aloud helps to get the cadence right. Her later stories like 'The Book of Harlem', written in the style of biblical verse, show the maturity and playfulness of her writing talents.

Many of the stories depict the complexities of romantic relationships, domestic abuse, traditional gender roles and infidelity. In ''The Conversion of Sam', 'Under the Bridge', 'Spunk', 'Sweat' and others Hurston is sharp in her portrayal of characters and I have a particular fondness for the strong women she creates.

I really wanted to like this book. While I enjoyed some of the stories, on the whole I was disappointed. There were some tales I struggled to get through and at one stage I considered giving up, but ultimately I am glad I persevered.