Not so magical – Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

Harry Potter meets Bret Easton Ellis with a dash of C S Lewis on crack. The Magicians by Lev Grossman was a New York Times bestseller so a lot of people like the author’s blend of magician fantasy with brat-pack college romp but, after reading this novel, I know I prefer my fantasy pure. There are overt references to Harry Potter in this book so Grossman knows exactly what he is doing.

The Hogwarts in The Magicians is Brakebills, a college situated in upstate New York. It is in a weather bubble out of synch with ‘real’ weather and protected by spells so no one can detect its whereabouts. The hero, Quentin, who had a mild interest in magic tricks as a child but who also has an extremely high IQ is recruited to the college after a gruelling entrance exam. The part of the novel covering Quentin’s initiation into magic at the school is a lot of fun and the character’s trials and tribulations make him sympathetic: his irony and dry humour adds to this. There also are some beautiful moments of description, most notably when the students are turned into migrating geese.

It is when Quentin graduates and returns to the ‘real world’ as a magician – on the top of his game, arrogant and bored – that I began to find the novel annoying. Back in New York, always living in upmarket squats, Quentin and his magician friends binge out on sex, alcohol, drugs and anything else they want to indulge in. Their spell-making powers mean that they can do practically anything, and money and other people aren’t a problem. I really didn’t care about the petty relationships between these narcissistic people. I can understand that this is a portrayal of the ennui of uber-rich young adults, but, as a reader, I want to be able to care about and identify with at least some of the characters. Even Quentin’s girlfriend Alice, who starts out as shy and principled, turns out as bad as the rest and she only reveals a more admirable side later in the book where she acts to protect Quentin (I won’t spoil it by telling you what happened). But: too little, too late.

After the period of binging in New York, the characters finally get the adventure that they (and the reader) have been waiting for. They are transported via a shirt button into another world that looks a lot like Narnia but is here called Fillory (the title of the world in a favourite childhood book of Quentin’s). The story picks up considerably here, but it’s Narnia ratcheted up one thousand fold. The kind and quaint beasts aren’t so nice in this Narnia, blood and gore abound.

When most of the friends escape, Quentin is left behind, badly injured, to be healed by a community of centaurs. Even these seemingly caring vegetarians have their dark side keeping horses for a form of sex slavery.

Finally, and fairly randomly, Quentin returns to the ‘real world’ or rather the unreal world of Brakebills, older, wiser, more powerful; and ready, it seems, for the a sequel. Grossman has given us this in the just published The Magician King. I don’t think I’ll be reading it, though.

The eye or the ear?

I’m not really a devotee of audio books but having had Elizabeth Kostova’s long novel The Swan Thieves on my ‘to read’ shelf for over a year, and seeing the audio book was available, I thought, why not?

My experience of listening to this audio book has made me muse over the difference between reading and being read to.

I loved Elizabeth Kostova’s first book, the literary vampire novel The Historian so I expected to also love The Swan Thieves – but I didn’t. I thought the story was very slight for a lengthy book, it was painfully detailed, the main narrator, a psychologist called Marlow, was uninspiring and terribly middle-American, and the sections set in late 19th century France were unconvincing.

In Kostova’s favour is a wonderful eye for detail, an ability to construct a beautiful sentence and to write authentically about art.

In the end, having merely listened to the book, I was unsure whether my impatience and ambivalence was really about the book itself or about the reading. This particular audio book was read by five actors/readers representing the different narratorial voices in the novel. Did I really hate Marlow the character, or Marlow the actor? Were the French parts really as bad as I thought, or were the Americanised French accents what turned me off?

Ultimately I can’t unequivocally say the book was as weak as I think because I can’t ascribe it all to Kostova. It does make me think that, just as I look for a narratorial voice I like when I select a book I want to read, I should also check an audio book for a reader whose ‘take’ on the narrative is sympathetic to my own.

Lady Audley’s Secret

By Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Wordsworth Classics

Lady Audley’s Secret is apparently an example of ‘sensation fiction’ – ‘a genre that flourished in the 1860s’ according to Catherine Wells-Cole who writes the introduction to this edition. Sensation fiction catered to the Victorian interest in ‘the lurid, scandalous and melodramatic’. Lady Audley’s Secret certainly has melodramatic elements and it does deal with potentially scandalous material such as bigamy, murder and blackmail. But, by these criteria, Charles Dickens and Charlotte and Emily Bronte would also be writers of sensation fiction. Nevertheless Lady Audley’s Secret was incredibly successful in its day and never out of print during the lifetime of the author. It was first published as a magazine serial and this shows with some pretty annoying padding in the third volume.

What’s particularly effective in the novel, and what raises it above the melodramas of the day, is Braddon’s use of ironic distance in the central character Lucy, the governess who becomes the second Lady Audley. Lucy is childlike, beautiful and everyone’s favourite, and appears to be genuinely fond of her aging, wealthy husband. The reader may not exactly warm to her (she is spoilt and given to a love of luxury) but she is not obviously a villain. The fun of the book is waiting for her to slip up as her husband’s nephew, Robert Audley, doggedly pursues answers to the disappearance of his friend George Tallboys, and begins to suspect Lucy has had a hand in it.

Braddon also has a way with words and I love her Gothic descriptions of Audley Court:

A fierce and crimson sunset. The mullioned windows and the twinkling lattices are all ablaze with the red glory; the fading light flickers upon the leaves of the limes in the long avenue, and changes the still fishpond into a sheet of burnished copper; even into those dim recesses of briar and brushwood, amidst which the old well is hidden, the crimson brightness penetrates in fitful flashes, till the dank weeds and the rusty iron and broken woodwork seem as if they were flecked with blood.

Needless to say the well does play a part in the denouement later on.

I did enjoy the novel, especially the detective aspects as Robert Audley (who is depicted in the early section as an amiable, lazy, pipe-smoking, dog lover and somehow morphs into an active and determined nemesis) runs around the countryside interviewing people and pulling burnt remnants of letters out of fireplace grates. I hoped that Robert would hitch up with Sir Michael Audley’s sharp and witty daughter but he goes, instead, for the po-faced, purer than pure sister of George Tallboys.

Perhaps Braddon gets away with the sensational aspects of the novel by framing them (more and more as the narrative advances) within a conservative moral framework. Robert goes from fop to staunch supporter of his Uncle’s honour, Lady Audley goes from clever schemer to a beaten, pathetic figure and the nasty, cold father of George Tallboys turns out to be an upstanding figure all along. Basically the male characters (except for some of the lower class ones – Lady Audley’s drunken father and the violent husband of her maid) come out squeaky clean in the wash and all the opprobrium is heaped upon Lady Audley. According to Robert Audley his friend George Tallboys is the best of men despite deserting his wife when she had just given birth to a child (he goes to make his fortune in the goldfields of Australia but he neglects to tell her that). Robert also thinks his uncle is something akin to a saint although he married Lucy when she was a governess and 21 years old, and then favoured her over his daughter of the same age. Of course Lucy takes over from the daughter in looking after the old codger.

I think there is a structural flaw in the novel in that it appears to come to a climax about two thirds of the way through and then tapers off before the final unravelling. Apparently Braddon wrote the last volume in two weeks and it shows. Nevertheless Lady Audley’s Secret is clever, often amusing, and Lady Audley’s depiction is an interesting example of an unreliable narrator (or at least unreliable character).

To story, or not to story

Here are two passages from the journal Kill Your Darlings about writing. The first by Laurie Steed bemoans the conservative nature of Australian fiction writing, and the second taken from an interview with the Scottish author Andrew Nicoll (The Good Mayor) by S A Jones has a dig at meandering no-story, literary fiction.

The thing I’d say about Laurie Steed’s argument is that there are outlets for experimental fiction and there is plenty of literary fiction written in an urban setting. In fact most of the grants available go to this type of writing, and so they should. Where are the “traditional, restrictive modes of storytelling” that are so exclusive? For twenty or thirty years the literature board etc has ruthlessly rooted this out. Only recently has it made a feeble comeback.

While Nicoll’s critique of literary fiction is harsh, and probably sexist, he does have a point that that much literary fiction is overworked, precious and dismissive of the story-telling imperative. Great, enduring literature melds the two. In Australia, with the exception of few of our top writers like Peter Carey and Kate Grenville, we haven’t worked out the formula for literary best sellers. Where are our Ian McEwans or Zadie Smiths?

I was also fascinated by Nicoll’s suggestion that the success of crime fiction is a hunger for novels with story. I’ve often pondered what readers see in the procedurals or the blood and gore serial killer stuff, but it’s true there is an undoubted satisfaction in the unravelling of threads and the depiction of relationships, often fairly mundane ones, against a world of menace and danger brought back to order at the end. The huge popularity of historical fiction could also be attributed to the desire for story (on an epic scale).

“Thematically, much of Australian literature has for too long been focused on what Jo Case described in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings as ‘bush and beach’. It’s been locked in traditional, restrictive modes of storytelling both culturally exclusive and gender biased. These modes are of little relevance to a predominantly urban contemporary Australian society, shaped as it is by multiculturalism, globalisation and neoliberalism. More importantly, regionalist literature is driving away a potential readership, a readership that can readily find more relevant and compelling characters, settings and narratives in various other media.”

– Laurie Steed

“I am bemused by the obsession with writing everything in the present tense. I’m told that this is supposed to create immediacy but it just creates neuralgia. I mourn the death of story. Page after page after tedious page where nothing happens and nothing is supposed to happen, just a failed drunk and an angry lesbian sitting in a cellar watching mould form while they internally agonise about the meaning of life. Stop! I get enough of that at home, I don’t want to read a book about it. That’s why the only books that sell are detective slasha shockas; because people know they are going to get a story. Why can’t we have stories that actually have something to say about the human condition too? Homer managed it, Dickens managed it. But the critics go along with it. I don’t know whether it’s symbiosis or parasitism but it’s a self-serving daisy chain. They tell people what is good and worthy and people buy the books, but they don’t buy them twice.”

Andrew Nicoll interviewed by S A Jones

The Distant Hours review

This is the third novel by the very successful Australian author Kate Morton. Her first book The Shifting Fog was an international bestseller and this was followed by The Forgotten Garden. Morton’s novels might be called literary mystery romances and they centre around family secrets that play out over generations.

I didn’t read The Shifting Fog feeling suspicious of a book that was over promoted. I did buy The Forgotten Garden (who could resist that title) but it languished on my bookshelf for some reason. Then The Distant Hours came along and the blurb was too irresistable.

Elderly sisters living in a castle, their reclusive father, Raymond Blythe, a famous author, a long lost letter that connects our heroine’s mother to the castle, a tragic romance causing insanity, mysterious deaths etc etc

At the time I bought it The Distant Hours was only for sale in hard copy in Austalia (huh? that usually happens only for a beautifully produced lit fiction title, or that last Harry Potter) so I bought it as an ebook. This worked out very well as I didn’t have to lug a 600 page book around on holidays.

On the whole I enjoyed the novel but found it very patchy as if a different author had written various parts, and the plot was very convoluted with turns upon turns upon turns. Add to this different time frames and numerous points of view and I found myself exasperated in parts and bored with the overly detailed narrative in others.

This is a pity because Morton can write very effectively. Her portrayal of the dynamics of the relationship of the Blythe sisters is acute – the stiff, controlling but quite funny Percy, the seemingly soft and yielding but, in reality, tougher than she seems Saffy, and the fey and unwordly Juniper is wonderfully done especially in the long section near the beginning set in 1941 when they are waiting at the castle for Juniper to return from London with a ‘young man’.

The period (wartime) setting of the novel is effectively evoked as is the moody, crumbling castle but I found some of the ‘contemporary’ (though in reality this section is set in the early 1990s) narrative forced and annoying. Why on earth our heroine Edie’s father comes in to the story as he takes an interest from his sick bed in Raymond Blythe’s Gothic children’s book The True History of the Mud Man is beyond me.

And it is really Edie’s mother, Meredith, who has a direct link to the castle (and for whatever reason has kept this period of her life secret from her daughter and her husband). But Morton does not choose Meredith, although it is she who has something at stake, but Edie to follow the trail of clues and mystery back to the castle. Perhaps Morton wanted to show Meredith’s boring life as a consequence of decisions she made long ago and thus felt Meredith could not be a compelling enough character, so young, literary Edie is given the role.

There is a trend in genre publishing for these sort of novels that meld the present with the past. Like Edie we, the reader, want to unravel a mystery and Edie becomes our proxy as we follow clues and find out snippets of information. But Morton goes one step further and allows us into the heads of characters in the past so, for example, we see how Percy Blythe feels and acts in the present (through Edie’s eyes) and also how she thinks, feels and acts in the past (although the whole is referred through the modern protagonist of Edie).

I wonder about the extraordinary popularity of these books. Readers don’t merely want to read about a fiction occurring in the past, they want it resolved in the present ie they want total control and everything has to be meaningful to a character, today.

But who am I to quibble? Morton is hugely popular, and readers seem to like the plethora of twists and turns in her plots; and even, it appears, are prepared to overlook the dead ends and the boring, irrelevant bits.

Steamy, evocative Shanghai

I’m just back from a three week visit to China – smoggy, stately Beijing and steamy, glitzy Shanghai.

If you are ever in Shanghai, I wholeheartedly recommend the Shikumen Open House Museum in the French Concession area. Shikumen are stone courtyard houses running off narrow alleyways. There are similar houses in Beijing’s hutongs – some of the old areas that have escaped the massive development in the city. You can see them in pockets set back from major roads. Some of the houses have been converted into hotels, and you can stay there (and have all the mod cons never dreamed of by the original residents).

China, at least in the big cities, is truly monumental, dwarfing mere humans. That’s why the open house museum in Shanghai was so evocative to me. It’s small in scale, one house, making attention to detail easier. I loved the sense of something familiar – gramophone, movie posters, children’s books, hairbrushes – mixed with the exotic – Chinese tea sets, dark wooden screens, a cramped ‘servants’ courtyard’ to dry washing on poles.

There is a sense of that strange westernisation of the East that occurred in the first decades of the twentieth century (see my review of The Makioka Sisters). Perhaps its epitome is the cheongsam, the beautiful close-fitting silk dresses, western-styled in essence but with elegant Chinese detail.

On a writerly theme the shikumen had a small uncomfortable corner room (cold in winter, hot in summer) that was often rented out to aspiring writers. The writer’s room in the museum has notebook, pens and typewriter but, how wonderful that there were so many writers to occupy all the houses (a bit like Newtown or Fitzroy in Australia today!).

There’s a nice review of the Shikumen museum in the Sydney Morning Herald which you can read here.

What’s so haunting about the lifestyle depicted in the museum is how short-lived it was. By 1937, the Japanese had invaded China, and Shanghai was occupied until 1945, and by 1949 Mao Zedong had established the People’s Republic of China.

Somewhere I read that many of the westerners, who might have lived in Shanghai for generations, and survived internment during the war thought they could carry on as usual after the war (with their privileged lifestyle) not realising everything had changed.

As so often happens when you’re travelling, you yearn to read fiction about the places you’re visiting – to get behind the surface and immerse yourself in atmosphere, story, insight.

I have to admit to not being able to find a bookstore with many English language titles, so I was at a bit of a loss. However when in Beijing, I had a drink in the Writers’ Bar – at the Raffles Hotel. Nice hotel but it’s a bit of a cheat to have a writer’s bar there – the original being in Singapore where some actual writers did drink – Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad, most notably.

From the B&W photos adorning the Beijing version I think they are confusing communist party luminaries with literary types but, I give them their due, they did have one bookshelf of foreign language titles and in this I found Flower Net by Lisa See, a mystery thriller set mostly in Beijing.

Lisa See begins to do for Beijing what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did for turn-of-the-century London or Dashiell Hammett did for 1920s San Francisco: She discerns the hidden city lurking beneath the public façade says The Washington Post on the back cover blurb. What more could you ask?

Well, a Lisa See book set in Shanghai and she’s delivered on that too with Shanghai Girls about two sisters who live a comfortable life in Shanghai in the thirties but who have to flee when the war breaks out and end up in Chinatown in Los Angeles.

Lisa See has written a number of novels set in China, historical and contemporary. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan which, among other things is about a secret women’s form of writing has now been made into a film. See has also written a sequel to Shanghai Girls called Dreams of Joy.

Tiger’s Wife wins Orange Prize

There’s a lot of buzz around this book and it’s quite amazing as Tea Obreht is only 25 years old. The head of the judging panel Bettany Hughes (of Helen of Troy fame) said: 

“The Tiger’s Wife is an exceptional book and Téa Obreht is a truly exciting new talent. Obreht’s powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable. By skilfully spinning a series of magical tales she has managed to bring the tragedy of chronic Balkan conflict thumping into our front rooms with a bittersweet vivacity.

“The book reminds us how easily we can slip into barbarity, but also of the breadth and depth of human love. Obreht celebrates storytelling and she helps us to remember that it is the stories that we tell about ourselves, and about others, that can make us who we are and the world what it is.” 

SWF too much of a good thing

Does anyone else think the Sydney Writers’ Festival has grown just too big? Perhaps it was ever thus, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, so when did writers become celebrities? Or is it that our voracious media has latched on to the easy copy of authors on tap and publicists on overdrive?

I just can’t be bothered going anymore and facing the bumping, grinding, tripping crowds. When I check out the SWF website and see “choose your author by letter of the alphabet” I give up. It takes the discipline of a military campaign to navigate your way through the hundreds of “acts” on offer and make your choice.

Gone are the days of serendipity when you wandered around and stumbled upon interesting panels quite by chance. Basically it’s hard to know what’s going to be good so pot luck has advantages. This was before they started charging as a way of dealing with the burgeoning numbers, not to mention including the Opera House and the Sydney Town Hall as venues. Hey, what about the Entertainment Centre? I think the charm has gone. No wonder smaller writers’ festivals are popping up all over the place.

Dublic IMPAC shortlist

Three Australian authors have made it onto the Dublin IMPAC literary award (nominees are put forward by libraries).

David Malouf for Ransom, Craig Silvey for Jasper Jones and Evie Wyld for After the Fire, A Still, Small Voice.

Interestingly enough, it was San Diego Public Library that nominated Wyld, while the SA State Library nominated Silvey and the National Library and the NSW State library nominated Malouf. See full shortlist.

Women and literary awards

There has been a brouhaha about the three-book short list for the Miles Franklin Award – the list being all male. The year before last, there was also a controversy when the long list was all male, so the judges would have been well aware of what they were doing, in this case. I’m sure the three books on the list are worthy – they are high-end literary and  dealing (at least with Bereft and the That Deadman Dance) with pretty serious issues (When Colts Ran is an outback, male-centred story). But as many other people have said: are male writers really that much better than female writers? Or do men choose what our culture still regards as more weighty, serious, important subjects and treatments, and thus these works are more suited to a culturally prestigious award?

Of the novels that have won the Miles Franklin for the last 10 years, only two are by women – Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire (Hazzard is a very intellectual serious novelist of the old school) and the other was Carpentaria by indigenous writer Alexis Wright – a big and highly ambitious work.

The ten all up are:

* 2010 Peter Temple Truth
* 2009 Tim Winton Breath
* 2008 Steven Carroll The Time We Have Taken
* 2007 Alexis Wright Carpentaria
* 2006 Roger McDonald The Ballad of Desmond Kale
* 2005 Andrew McGahan The White Earth
* 2004 Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
* 2003 Alex Miller Journey to the Stone Country
* 2002 Tim Winton Dirt Music
* 2001 Frank Moorhouse Dark Palace.

Barbara Jefferis

I have to admit to not having read a single one of the above. I started Dark Palace but hated it. I also started Dirt Music and didn’t get very far with that either. Now I come to think of it, a certain masculine outlook in both books turned me off. I also avoided Truth , after trying to read The Broken Shore, and again not being able to get onto the wavelength of the writer (I know I’m in a minority here).

So perhaps reading the Miles Franklin winner is like eating your greens – you know it’s good for you even if it’s not to your taste. If it’s any consolation to the women who perpetually miss out on the award, I think women writers have a bigger readership than male writers (Tim Winton excepted).

The whole issue of women missing out on major literary prizes was the impetus behind the Orange Prize in the UK and, ironically, there have been rumblings over the last few years over whether there should be a prize based on gender at all (the playing field being so flat now, after all!!) There is a women-only prize in Australia, the Kibble Literary Award (for novels and life writing), and it is quite lucrative at $30,000, but who has heard of it?

There is also the Barbara Jefferis Award for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. This definition means that male authors can also enter (only one brave male did so last time). G L Osborne won the most recent award with Come Inside. But, sad to say, this award hardly rates national media attention (although the Orange prize is quite high profile). So I guess you could say having such prizes doesn’t really address the problem of womens’ writing being regarded as less culturally significant than mens’.