Bright Swallow by Vivian Bi

I became interested in the lives of Chinese people during Mao’s cultural revolution after reading Jung Chang’s wonderful Wild Swans. Bright Swallow does not have the epic sweep of Chang’s work but is a memoir of Bi’s teenage and early adult life in Beijing and the countryside in the seventies and early eighties. Bi’s parents were educated and well off, and in the case of her mother, musically talented. Such qualities had them labelled ‘rightists’ and penalised. A slip up by her father, compounded the offence and he, and then his sons, were sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated’.

Bi and her mother lived by themselves in Beijing in a courtyard house divided into a number of homes and subsisted as best they could. Vivian – Xiyan in Chinese, meaning ‘bright swallow’ – knows she comes from ‘bad origins’ and will never be accepted because of this. When she is just 15, her mother dies of lung cancer and Xiyan is left on her own and is determined to look after herself learning to cook, clean and budget. In her first year she can’t get the hang of the stove and runs out of money for fuel, so almost freezes. She has a hankering for crispy pancakes sold by hawkers and foolishly buys two, then has no money for food until the monthly allowances comes due. In a time when everyone reports on everyone else, she is fortunate to have a kind woman is her ‘compound leader’ who helps her learn to look after herself.

Xiyan works hard at school, wanting to make something of herself to fulfil her mother’s dictum to ‘live a life’. Helping other students with homework leads to a cadre’s son lending her books of Western classics (something that is strictly illegal so that Xiyan must read the book quickly and return it) She starts with The Count of Monte Christo, and to keep the story in her mind and amuse other children she memorises the text and recounts it. This is something that could get her into trouble, so she carries out various subterfuges to continue doing it, and it becomes a popular event.

The universities have been closed but then Mao miraculously announces they will open. There is a flurry of competition and studying, and Xiyan’s hopes are up. However, just as suddenly, Mao sends all the city high school graduates to do a period of work in the countryside, including Xiyan. Her determination to succeed even manifests itself here and, despite a denunciation by her father (something that she can ever quite forgive), which means she is singled out for tough treatment and humiliation, she throws herself into village life becoming indispensable and accepted, finally getting to look after some working horses, which she loves.

Of course, Mao dies, the cultural revolution ends, and China opens up a fraction, but it is no easy course for Xiyan to make it to Australia still having ‘bad origins’ (she eventually finds a way around this). This is a lovely, honest memoir and gives a great insight into a young girl living in extraordinary times. It shows that in a time of hardship, personal loss, sanctioned violence (by red guards), quixotic government edicts and (often familial) betrayals, there are still kindnesses, generosity and small pleasures. Bi does admit, though, the qualities of toughness, resilience and self-reliance she had to develop to survive on her own have stayed with her – she has never quite been able to soften them.

 

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Charlie is a bit of a no-hoper living in a reimagined London in the 80s. he inhabits a rundown one bedroom flat and plays the stock market on his beat-up computer and makes enough to get by. His love interest is Miranda, a history student, who lives in the flat above. Although it’s the 80s in McEwan’s alternate history, Alan Turing had not committed suicide, so computing technology is far-advanced – the result of this is that a private company (Elon Musk-esque) has developed advanced AI androids. They have just put on the market a trial group of 12 females (Eves) and 13 males (Adams). Charlie gets an inheritance from his mother and, on impulse. Buys an Adam (all the Eves are sold out).

So far, this is perhaps your average SF/spec fic scenario, but McEwan isn’t interested in going there. This novel is not for thrills; it is a philosophical examination of what it means to be human with all McEwan’s trade mark humour, stylistic and structural pyrotechnics, and impressive erudition. Most writers would baulk at depicting Turing discussing AI but McEwan goes right in there with convincing detail and bravura. McEwan grounds the story in complications between Adam, Charlie and Miranda. There are twists and twists and twists – nothing about the narrative is straightforward and tired ideas about android/robot/human interaction are turned on their heads.

This novel made me think about things and challenged my assumptions – it’s a rare thing when a piece of literature makes you look at something anew, from an angle I hadn’t encountered before, and he achieves this through the framework of a very enjoyable and entertaining read. Maybe, if I had to critical, I’d say McEwan can’t help but be a little too clever, and conceited about it.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

I began by being extremely drawn to this account of dealing with a difficult parent in their old age. My late mother, too, was a (convincing) fantasist who turned on her daughters as we tried to help her as she declined. The incredible tension experienced when my version of things was not believed by others (doctors, health workers, social workers etc etc) was very potently portrayed by Laveau-Harvie when she encountered this.

However, this is not a blow-by-blow description of what happened to Laveau-Harvie and her sister but more a work of creative non-fiction – moving back and forwards in time, withholding, immersing the reader in mood and the beautiful environment of the Canadian prairie where her parents had their large house (don’t be fooled by the barn-like shack on the cover – think more like Dynasty). The author creates the story through carefully-chosen scenes (often blackly comic) and interior musings.

However, as the narrative progressed, I lost the connection I felt in the beginning as I realised this was not (perhaps necessarily) an impartial account. What is very brave about the book is that Laveau-Harvie opens herself up to being seen as unsympathetic (I’m sure most authors would pull hard against exposing themselves in this way. I felt terrible guilt after my mother passed away – did Laveau-Harvie feel something similar that was expiated, to a certain extent in this aspect of the work? Who knows.) I may have been too close to the story to be impartial myself but I had a strong negative reaction to the fate of the mother and the valorising of the father who, after all, had been complicit with his wife in her treatment of the daughters. The Erratics raises a plethora  issues and, after winning The Stella Prize, many more people will get to discuss them.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

I started reading this long book by Richard Powers and found the beginning a little tiring (over-detailed, slow). It starts with a pioneering family in the US and the (odd) obsession by one of them with documenting the growth from seed of a chestnut tree (at this time a chestnut blight was systematically wiping out whole ancient forests). Then we abruptly leave this story and move on to another one of a Chinese man immigrating to the US taking with him an ancient scroll. This is how the novel develops, moving from one story to the next, starting with the background of characters, and then following their families. They all, in one way or another, have a connection to trees – although this is sometimes tangential. I don’t know if I would have persisted with The Overstory if I hadn’t decided to listen to the audiobook, rather than read the paper one. I just relaxed back and took in this big, wide-ranging, detailed book with its huge cast of characters. I’m not sure how many main storylines we follow; maybe nine?

Some are more compelling than others. I liked Patricia, a deaf, taciturn and withdrawn plant expert who goes against the conventional wisdom and does research into tree communication (of course, now it is accepted that trees communicate, help and protect each other; even those of different species). I also liked Douglas, an ex-military dropout loner who sees the light in middle age when he encounters clear felling and the practice of the logging companies of leaving a façade of trees along roads, and at the edge of logging coups, to fool the public. He does his bit by joining a regreening work gang replanting seedlings for a logger, until he finds out that by doing this, the company gets a licence to log even more. There is also an Indian quadriplegic programmer who gets rich inventing a game called Mastery, where you start with a virgin planet and develop and civilise it (it takes him a long time to see the implications of this and try to make amends).

As the narrative progresses, some of the characters meet, come together, and protest logging. Peaceful protest is met by force and our small group decide to take more active measures. The consequences of this are far ranging and provide the main narrative thrust of the novel but this is not a linear narrative and Powers is not about to provide any easy answers. I had the feeling often about this book that it was about to end – some profound point had been made, some realisation of a main character’s – but it went on, often switching between storylines at these moments. I won’t spoil the end, but it is in keeping.

My defences were worn down by the narrative; it was relentless, and beautifully and powerfully written, with a cynicism of humanity that I agree with wholeheartedly. I was stuck with the characters, I had to go with them and when it finished, I had that sensation that something deeply satisfying had left me. The ending makes you think about the whole and I realised Powers was doing something interesting with the structure (hint the sections are titled Roots, Trunk, Crown, Seeds). The various sections start out with ‘roots’ – the family history or background of the characters, then they grow independently branching out. I like to think that the little revelations, or narrative stops, I noticed, were the ends of the twigs growing out from the branch. In the end, you just have to step back, take in the whole, and accept it for what it is. Whether you are convinced by the ‘seeds’, I’ll leave up to you.

I think this book is a pretty staggering achievement (apart from everything else, it is highly erudite on a wide range of topics). It reminded me of Middlemarch where Eliot developed the same sense of community and loose interconnectedness, and I felt the same sadness at having to move from that novel as I did with The Overstory.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a little gem of a book (152 pages) – hard and bright. Silvie is an adolescent girl who goes with her father and mother on an experiential archaeology week in the Northumberland countryside – her father has a lay interest in iron age English culture and somehow has tagged along on a university field trip with a professor and three students. The novel is prefaced by a description of the human sacrifice of a young woman, one of the bog people whose bodies are preserved and whose fates have been much speculated about. This scene hangs like an eerie tension over the narrative.

Silvie is a great character; at once knowing and competent (her father has taught her survivalist skills since she was a little girl), and sheltered and innocent. She is bewildered by the students, especially Molly, the only other female (except for Silvie’s cowed mother). Molly’s nail polish, her humour and cynicism (she goes off to a shop nearby to secretly buy food when they are supposed to be living off berries and leaves, fish and rabbits). The killing of the rabbits, and graphic skinning and gutting of them, is something that Silvie is used to, although she’s sad for the things that were running around only the day before, while Molly is disgusted and refuses to eat them. Silvie’s father is scornful and full of derision at such soft modern sensitivities.

Although we see the story from Silvie’s point of view, the case against the father is built up slowly and circumstantially. She can see that he knows as much as the professor, in his own way, and that, living as iron age people, he is the one who would lead. Even the professor starts to rely on him, and they spend days apart while Silvie and the others are relegated to foraging or cleaning up camp.

This novel is at once a fantastically detailed portrayal of living in, and off, nature and a psychological study of repression and complicity. We all know where it is heading but I couldn’t work out how Moss was going to get us there. But she does, shockingly and convincingly.

Skylarking – Kate Mildenhall

Mildenhall’s novel has some lovely descriptive writing of life in a small lighthouse-keeper community on the NSW south coast in the 1880s. Two teenagers, Kate and Harriet, are close friends enjoying a lot of freedom running around picnicking and playing dares at the cliff’s edge. This idyllic time is threatened when the girls’ nascent sexuality emerges and Harriet, in particular, wants romance, and we assume marriage. Kate is more of a free spirit. McPhail, a man in his thirties, arrives on the cape as a fisherman. Despite being an unlikely object for Harriet’s interest, she is aware of her sexual power over him and toys with encouraging him. This complication draws Kate in, and a tragedy plays out. The novel is based on a true story and I think this constrained the writer so that the motivations are sometimes unclear. The ending is extended way too long, lessening the impact of what is already a fairly low-key narrative.

Black Inc have given the novel a beautiful evocative cover.

2018 books in review

Of the 53 books I read in 2018, 14 were by male authors and 39 by women (27% to 73%) The year before it was was even fewer by men (22%). A fifth of the books I read were non-fiction and the rest fiction. The year before I lamented the amount of ‘shlock’ I read (the guilty pleasures) with only eleven books being classified as ‘literary’. Unfortunately last year I fared no better – I managed just twelve literary fiction works. In my defense I did read a lot of ‘serious’ non-fiction. A new thing is the number of audiobooks listened to. These are turning out to be supplementary to my reading of physical and ebooks so I’m fitting more books into my life which suits me. Here are my highs and lows for 2018.

Best book of the year: Educated. ‘Wild Swans’ blew my mind in 2017 and ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover blew my mind last year. It is a searingly honest account of growing up in a survivalist family, revealing her complicity in it. Education is her eventual way out but she, and we, are educated in another way by reliving the violence, trauma, beauty and belonging of the narrative. As with the most successful of these real-life stories – ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed is another example – ‘Educated’ is cleverly and beautifully structured. It deserves the acclaim that has been heaped on it.

Book that opened my eyes: Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. One of the things about borrowing audiobooks through the local library is having to trawl through the limited range to find something I might like. For some reason I thought I might try ‘Marie Antoinette’ by Antonia Fraser. I don’t know why as I had no particular interest in this period of history. Historians who take on well-trodden material have to have a new angle and Fraser’s is to write sympathetically about a woman who has been traduced in the popular imagination. As with most things, the story is more complex and less black and white, and as with much of history, women are viewed through the misogyny of male record keepers. Fraser presents a woman who is of her class but who tries to do her best in the circumstances meted out to her (Marie Antoinette was an outsider, a German, so held in suspicion by the court). She is circumscribed by dress codes and the minutiae of court traditions. She appears to have cared for the king and been a loving mother to her children at a time when they were often left to be brought up by nannies and tutors. When the revolution began she was vilified brutally in pamphlets, even accused of incest with her eight-year-old son. It did remind me of the ‘lock her up’ hatred thrown at Hillary Clinton.

Most absorbing page turner – The Living and the Dead in Winsford: Isn’t this the sort of book we yearn for? Something that draws us in as gives us a deep satisfaction? There were a couple of contenders for this. ‘Lorna Doone’ was a rollicking read and I really enjoyed ‘Snap’ by Belinda Bauer, but two psychological thrillers really gripped me: ‘Fear’ by German writer Dirk Kurbjuweit and ‘The Living and Dead in Winsford’ by Swedish writer Hakan Nesser. I chose the latter as it is one of those stripped down, taught novels that use a small canvas to build up tension and apprehension. The narrator is a woman living under the radar in a rented cottage in remote Exmoor with her dog (coincidentally she reads Loorna Doone also set in Exmoor to while away the time). The reader slowly finds out why she is on the run and what she has done but by that time we are totally on her side hoping she can remain undiscovered. It has one of the great first lines: ‘The day before yesterday I decided that I would outlive my dog. I owe him that.’

New author discovery – Amie Kaufman: I had heard of Amie Kaufman and the phenomenon of the Illuminae files but had never read any of her books. In 2018 I read her children’s book ‘Ice Wolves’ an enjoyable fantasy where selected children have special powers. Our hero, Anders, finds out he is an ice wolf, a regimented life he is not looking forward to. His eyes are opened to the problems of his society when he finds out his twin sister is a scorch dragon, a sworn enemy, thus making her an outcast. I was interested enough to seek out more Kaufman such as her YA fantasy, ‘Unearthed’ (with Meagan Spooner). An immensely fun adventure set on a seemingly dead planet where archaeologist, Jules, is marooned with artefact scavenger, Mia. Mistrust and misunderstandings abound but they have to work together to solve the clues left by the Undying in their labyrinthine temple. I usually eschew double author narratives but as the story alternates between two voices (Jules and Mia) it works well in this instance.

Best audiobook: Lorna Doone. I was spoiled for choice here. I listened to many fantastic audiobooks. Tim Curry narrating Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series was a delight. I loved his characterisations (dear Mogget and lovely Disreputable Dog). ‘The Living and Dead in Winsford’ and the Elena Ferrante books were also beautifully narrated. However, my overall favourite was ‘Lorna Doone’ narrated by Jonathan Keeble. What a fantastic narrator he is bringing this wonderfully funny, poignant and wise picaresque narrative to life. That many people dismiss this book as a mere romance is so unfair. You may as well say that ‘David Copperfield’ or ‘Great Expectation’ are romances. I adored Lorna Doone.

Most disappointing book: The House at Bishopsgate. Why did I persevere with this long and boring book by Kate Hickman? It sounded so good. Set in the 17th century, a married couple – he a merchant, she weak from a devastating experience – return to England from Constantinople to the eponymous house. Seeking help for his wife, the merchant allows another woman to insinuate herself into their lives. How could people with such interesting backgrounds be so tedious? Does the wife, Celia, have to be so pathetic? What on earth does the subplot around the merchant’s brother and their father’s crumbling estate have to do with anything? Who cares?

Best non-fiction book: I Am, I Am, I Am. This collection of autobiographical essays by novelist Maggie O’Farrell was a delight. Each essay read like a beautifully executed short story and combined they had the interconnectedness and thematic depth of a novel. Absolutely revelatory and wonderful.

 

The Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

This novel could have been a lot better than it turned out to be. It has an interesting premise. A mother, Anne, takes her autistic daughter for a long bush walk, a moment’s inattention and the daughter runs off and cannot be found, despite searches for her. As times passes Anne comes under increasing suspicion and vilification. Lorenzo writes well and evocatively, and her portrayal of Anne is nuanced, drawing the reader in to her plight. However, the promise of tension and conflict isn’t really achieved. Perhaps we are given too much detail of Anne’s everyday life and Lorenzo is more focused on the dynamics of interpersonal and family relations, rather than on creating a sense of threat and confrontation (although she does do a great portrayal of an ordinary middle-class woman tainted by an accusation of harming her own child and having to face hostility and abuse). This is the strongest aspect of the novel and reminded me of that other great book on a similar theme, Emily Ruskovich’s ‘Idaho’.

I felt Lorenzo and her editor allowed too many extraneous threads to remain in the novel, for example a subplot around an Iraqi asylum-seeker that went nowhere. There was a sort of feel-good bagginess about some aspects of the novel that detracted from the central focus and made for a more pedestrian pace. The cover probably says it all – the publisher categorised it as a family relationships novel, rather than a thriller. Nevertheless, it is a nicely written and insightful account of a woman in extremis.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers

If you have read “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (see my review), the plot of Sally Vickers novel is surprisingly similar, so much so that I felt this book was a literary tribute to the former novel. Both are set in the ’50s, both have a youngish woman as a heroine who loves books (one starts a bookshop in a small English town, the other takes up a position of children’s librarian in a similar town). Things initially go well for both: the bookshop is set up and becomes a small success and, in the other story, the heroine (Sylvia Blackwell) makes changes to the library to bring the magic of books to the children of the town. Both women, by perhaps not understanding the narrow-mindedness of such towns, fall out of favour, and are cut down. Both books are peppered with nostalgic references to books loved, and books that might be recommended. I felt that Vickers’ heroine had the same rather distanced, naive, but also perceptive voice, of Fitzgerald’s heroine, Florence Green. However, while I found Fitzgerald’s book both annoying and frustrating, Vickers gives us more of a satisfying story, with Sylvia putting up more of a fight than Florence was able to muster. Fitzgerald packs Florence off into an uncertain future (all the more bleak because Florence is in her forties, not her twenties like Sylvia, and so we assume it would be harder for her to start over). While Sylvia, too, moves on, Vickers provides a coda in the last section of “The Librarian” where we move into the future and see the effect of Sylvia’s influence on some of the children she encouraged. Both books are more hard-edged and less sentimental than a you might expect from their titles and plot-lines.

Goodreads review

Pigface and Other Stories review

Like most anthologies, there is a great variety of stories here: realist and more fantastical, bush and city, sad and amusing. ‘Pigface’ by Andrew Roff (the winning story of the Margaret River short story prize), is a great piece of controlled prose, and unfolding tension. Kat is a ranger in an eco-resort; she knows she has a good job but the pushy guests she takes on a bush walk test her patience: she tells them about the plant pigface and a guest ‘stabbed a question at her-“Latin name?” Like a fork pointed across a dinner table’. Luckily, she knows the answer! Of course, tension builds and tempers flare as the walk goes on and I, for one, hoped one or two of the guests would get their just deserts.

In another story, ‘Living With Walruses’ by David Wright, a group of walruses inexplicably takes over the beach of a small coastal town. The locals love it (it brings tourists) but soon the smell and noise turn them against the creatures. It’s a quirky story about tolerance and cruelty, with a slight supernatural edge. I also loved ‘Setting Sail’ by Zoe Deleuil, a quiet story where a gentle encounter with a neighbour offers hope to a woman in a controlling marriage. ‘Descent’ by Fiona Robertson is a wonderfully tight, controlled story where the whole relationship between a father and his young son from a previous marriage is revealed in one bush walk up (and down) a mountain. The father is a great character – self-absorbed and obnoxious – and his relationship to his new wife and young daughter is acutely observed, as is the character of the teenage son (whose growing confidence in standing up to his father is the centre of the story).

In a more amusing vein, ‘Small Fish’ by Penny Gibson skewers a particular type of Aussie male – here seen on a fishing trip – although, in the end, the story is more poignant than harsh. I didn’t think I would feel empathy with any of these men but the author achieves this. I also enjoyed Tiffany Hastie’s ‘The Chopping Block’, a moving, beautifully-written story about a woman and her dog, and loneliness and resilience. An underlying sense of tension is built (and a certain amount of blood spilt!). ‘Habitat’ by Cassie Hamer is a clever piece of writing that covers a lot of issues on a small canvas – it, almost imperceptibly, builds up a sense of unease and angst in the everyday life of the main character.