The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

nightguestcoverMuch is made of the tiger in this novel, and that may have been a turn off for some readers, thinking this is magic realism in the vein of Life of Pi. I certainly thought so when I saw the cover for the first trade paperback edition with its cartoonish tiger’s paw peeking around a doorway. The new smaller paperback, that’s just come out, has a more mysterious, evocative cover, in keeping, I think, with the contents of this wonderful novel.

The tiger is a metaphor and doesn’t figure prominently but is a catalyst for much of the action. Ruth is an elderly widow left living alone, in an isolated beach house, having retired there with her late husband, Harry. Ruth is a beautifully-drawn character, tough in some ways but also vulnerable, and full of the memories of a childhood spent in Fiji with her missionary parents. In her isolation, these memories crowd back, especially at night when it seems the insects and hot, fetid atmosphere of Fiji crowds in.

Into Ruth’s self-contained world comes Frida— a large, forthright woman, maybe half-Fijian, maybe not—who says she’s ‘from the government’ and come to help out Ruth around the house. Ruth is surprised, but she has a bad back, and some assistance would be welcome. Frida then begins to insinuate herself into Ruth’s life and the power tussle between the two is played out, at first almost playfully and, as time goes by, a sinister note creeps in.

It is to McFarlane’s credit, and her skill at narrative, that this essentially two-character novel, is so riveting. Both Ruth and Frida are comic in their ways, but the drama of the book depends on us having access to Ruth’s thoughts—funny, sardonic, poignant—and to only know Frida by her actions and her words. But, she too, is funny—a force of nature with her energy and her quirks.

nightguestTPThe writing is also beautifully constructed, conveying with its tight prose and rich imagery, the depth and breadth of Ruth’s world:

Frida sat on the unfamiliar chair and looked at Ruth, impassive. Her obstinacy had a mineral quality. Ruth felt she could chip away at it with a sharp tool and reveal nothing more than the uniformity of its composition.

for example, or

Frida’s suitcase still sat on the sandy grass. It could convincingly have grown from a stalk into a grey-white fruit.

or the acute observation,

Ruth was sensitive to criticism of her father, in that tenuous and personal way in which children are anxious for the dignity of their parents. She worried a great deal for him out in the world.

The Night Guest is an affecting, psychological study with a surprisingly taut, suspenseful element lying somewhere between S J Watson’s thriller Before I Go to Sleep and Jessica Anderson’s wonderful Tirra Lirra by the River. In fact Nora Porteous, of the latter, has much in common with Ruth. Both are fantastic portrayals of older women looking back and assessing their lives, while struggling and dealing with the present.

The Great Unknown – review

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

The problem with a lot of literary anthologies is that they are very diverse. This showcases a range of writing but most readers will only find a few stories in the collection that speak to them. Angela Meyer’s anthology of ghost/speculative/strange/uncanny stories circumvents this. If that’s the kind of writing you like, you can read The Great Unknown from cover to cover.

The writers in this collection were asked to take as a starting point the sort of eerie, otherworldly feel that the TV series ‘The Twilight Zone’ produced. As such, you know that these stories are not going to follow conventional trajectories.

Kathy Charles’ story Baby’s First Words starts off with an everyday situation. A dad is picking up his young child for an access visit. From the beginning Charles’ deftly builds up the tension between the mother and the father. The wife needs the husband to look after the daughter but she tries to keep him talking at the front door unsure about him. He gives one-word answers but the reader has access to his thoughts and he’s ranting and bitter. As he drives away with his daughter he fumes about how his wife thinks the child has learning difficulties because she can’t talk. The reader is fearful for the child but is it the child we should be worried about? I loved this story.

Krissy Kneen’s ‘The Sleepwalker’ deals with an annoying but benign problem—Emily and Brendan are grappling with Emily’s habit if sleepwalking. The easy, mundane relationship of the couple is counterpointed to the growing strangeness of Emily’s behaviour. She starts to take photographs when sleepwalking but Brendan laughs it off—the photos are mostly blank. Then Emily develops some more and they see something in them. From there the story only gets creepier.

Damon Young’s ‘Art’ is clever and scary but not in the way the reader initially believes. It blurs the line between the erotic in art and the response in the viewer. Ben’s excitement at the artworks he sees at an exhibition spills over to what he feels towards a girl he’s just met outside the gallery. As in Baby’s First Words, the reader is led to be so afraid for a particular character that we don’t see the blow when it comes.

Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Sticks and Stones’ starts with the wonderful trope of so many horror stories—finding an unusual book in a second-hand bookstore. Blackwood, a philology professor, takes home Ten Terrifying Tales but finds what’s written in the margins more interesting than the stories themselves. The ‘anonymous critic’ purports to know enough about black masses to suggest the description in the book is inaccurate. Blackwood is amused by this, until he turns around and sees a row of letters written across the blank wall behind him. After that the words come after him. This is a clever and satisfying mirror within mirror story.

P. M. Newton’s story ‘The Local’ also uses a horror/mystery staple—small (almost empty) pub in the country, the out-of-towners who come in for a drink, the strange stories, a mysterious figure who seems to know more than he should about bizarre weather phenomena, the people who don’t listen to the warnings. Newton builds a hot, fetid atmosphere effectively.

One of my favourites in the book is the beautiful story by Marion Halligan ‘Her Dress was a Pale Glimmer’. The setting for the story is a simple one—dinner in the garden of a restaurant with a father and his two grown-up daughters—but the description of the girls’ dresses, the beauty of the evening as they begin their meal, and the lusciousness of the food imbues the scene with a fairytale feel.

The sun was low in the sky, nearly setting, shining under the branches into [my father’s] eyes but he said it didn’t matter, it would be gone in a minute. It took longer than that but finally it went down behind the mountain with very little colour, the light became pearly grey and the candles winked in their little glasses.

The beauty is muted because they are sad. The mother has disappeared some time ago and they don’t know whether she is alive or dead. Then one daughter gets a cryptic, yet lovely, message on her phone and all eyes are on the empty chair at their table.

The achievement, and the satisfaction, of these stories is that they take the everyday, the quotidian, and slowly and relentlessly turn it into anything but.

www.goodreads.com/review/list/16022645-helen-bookwoods

Win a copy of The Great Unknown

Good Reading Magazine is running a competition to win one of 10 copies of The Great Unknown. Click here to go to the website. The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

This collection of strange and spooky stories was perfect reading for the lazy week between Christmas and New Year, providing a dark antidote to the forced cheeriness of the season … Contributors to the anthology were invited to write about the fantastical, uncanny, absurd, or, as editor Angela Meyer  notes, ‘even just the slightly off’ … While the nineteen stories are diverse in style and content, this shared focus on the strange gives the anthology a pleasing coherence that many collections of short fiction lack … The combined effect of the pieces … reminded me of the pleasures of those puzzling and troubling moments in life, and in fiction, when logic is defied and image and association are required instead.

– Rachel Roberston Australian Book Review March, 2014.

The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerPlease keep a look out for the anthology of ghost, fantasy and horror stories The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer and published by Spineless Wonders (and which includes my story ‘Navigating’). These stories were all inspired by the Twilight Zone television series and so are creepy, uncanny and scary. What more do you want for those cicacda-filled nights in the beach house over summer? In bookshops now or from Spineless Wonders. (or click the image below in the sidebar).

From Angela Meyer’s blog Literary Minded:

‘In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Reality TV’, a guest is confronted with her husband’s infidelity under bright lights, while Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ satirises American talk shows and a cultural obsession with sporting ‘heroes’. Chris Flynn’s ‘Sealer’s Cove’ has a nudist caught in a time slip. Carmel Bird evokes Edgar Allen Poe when oversized hares incite the folk of rural Victoria to commit criminal acts, and in ‘Sticks and Stones’ Ryan O’Neill has an academic attacked by a demonic alphabet.

There are darkly seductive artworks, disappearances and reappearances, altered realities, future visions, second chances, clever animals, knowing children, and strange presences in photographs and abandoned motels, in these stories by established and emerging writers. Contributors include Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles.’

Women’s reading challenge rankings

I had high hopes for my participation in this challenge. I wanted to read Handfasted by Catherine Helen Spence and other 19th Australian women writers but, in the end, I ran out of time. Cravenly I included tiny novellas like Puberty Blues and The Bay of Noon in my ten novels. I even included The Villa of Death, which is by an Australian writer but set in England, and has Daphne du Maurier as the sleuthing heroine!

Here’s my list from favourite to least favourite:

  1. A Kingdom by the Sea – Nancy Phelan (Wonderful account of childhood around The Spit in Sydney in the 1920s and 30s; it is a bygone era beautifully evoked)
  2. Tirra Lirra by the River –  Jessica Anderson (perceptive novel about ageing and looking back over life; I loved spending time with Anderson’s witty and sardonic narrator)
  3. The Bay of Noon – Shirley Hazzard (Quintessentially of its time, the fifties/sixties; an intelligent but naïve young English woman finds herself drawn to the lives of a worldly Italian couple; philosophical and beautifully written)
  4. The Engagement – Chloe Hooper (Very clever Gothic thriller with psychological edge: I love it when Australian writers do this sort of thing well)
  5. Fortress – Gabrielle Lord (Suspenseful account of a school teacher and her class kidnapped by a gang of violent youths, has a great touch in portraying the relationship between the children and, our heroine, their teacher, coupled with clever plot twists)
  6. Reading by Moonlight – Brenda Walker (Falls between the two stools of a memoir of surviving cancer and literature appreciation; but clear, effective writing and intelligent, perceptive thoughts, redeem it)
  7. The Villa of Death – Joanna Challis (No deathless prose but Daphne du Maurier as the heroine is an entertaining character, the setting of a thinly-disguised Manderley is interesting, the mystery plot ticks away and it is fun guessing links to the real du Maurier’s life and novels)
  8. We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gun (Glad I read this work about a NT cattle station at the end of the 19th century for a particular portrayal of outback life, but it is a series of sketches rather than a novel)
  9. Butterfly Song – Terri Janke (Very readable novel that melds the contemporary life of an indigenous student with a mystery set in the Torres Strait in the 1940s)
  10. Puberty Blues – Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette (a disappointment after the wonderful television series).

 

Reading by Moonlight – Brenda Walker

The tag line to Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight is how books saved a life. I wonder why she chose to include this because it at once requires too much of books and also quite the wrong thing. Perhaps it is one way to flag to the reader that this is a book about the threat of mortality, not the romantic sweetness that ‘reading by moonlight’ suggests.

It is also not surprising that a literature academic would see her illness, in this case breast cancer, through the prism of fiction. For me, I picked up this book, to read an intelligent woman’s account of her brush with disease, and this disease in particular. One in four women will get breast cancer at some stage in her life, so a lot of us will have to face what Brenda Walker did.

There are, of course, descriptions of getting the diagnosis and her treatment of surgery and chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She is honest, and eloquent, about her fear of death. However the medical side is pushed to the background as if it is too painful to dwell there, or that readers would soon tire of too forensic a treatment. Instead Walker looks at literature and what she might find there to shine light on her experience, what might enrich our understanding of the vicissitudes of life.

All reading is a matter of taste and the works Walker includes to write about in detail are personal favourites of hers, or works that she can use to illustrate an idea. I did find the connection between many of the books to Walker’s experience of illness at times difficult to discern, or tenuous. They are hugely diverse – from Poe, to Tolstoy, Patrick White to Philip Roth. And there is a lot on Samuel Becket, a favourite of Walker’s. I found it hard to believe that anyone would choose Malone Dies as their book of choice for a hospital stay!

I did enjoy Walker’s discussion of The Tale of Genji and White’s Voss interesting, but others I found less enthralling.

That said, I enjoyed reading Moonlight. Walker’s style if crisp, studied, but also easy to read. The book reminded me, not that books can save a life, but the study of books within, or without, a tertiary institution certainly enhances your life. Walker, herself, explains what books mean to her:

When I tell myself that books can save a life, I don’t mean that books can postpone death. That is the job of medicine. I mean that certain books, by showing us the inner fullness of the individual life, can rescue us from a limited view of ourselves and others.

Reading reminds me that we are not so singular after all, that there are crowds, whole populations, in the stack of books at the end of my table. Some of these people will trouble me, some will appear in thoughts and dreams, and they will all still be here … when my own books are out of print, when my writing table is just another chipped piece of furniture at a clearing sale.

 

This is the final of my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge 2012. There will be another one next year – a great initiative to support women writers in this country. (See link in sidebar). 

The Engagement – Chloe Hooper

Liese Campbell is on a working holiday in Australia at her uncle’s real estate firm: she shows clients around fancy apartments to rent. One day in a crazy-brave spur of the moment decision she seduces a client, wealthy farmer Alexander Colquhoun, in one of the empty apartments. Maybe because he acts surprised at this, but is also willing, after the act she asks him to pay.

This is the premise The Engagement is based on. If you’re prepared to go with it, as I was, then you’re in for a tense, psychological thriller. The novel is basically a two hander – between Liese and Alexander – as the power in the relationship shifts from one to the other and back again.

The reader is given the backstory of how the two met and Liese’s background in England, but the novel starts with Alexander driving Liese from the station to his remote property for their first weekend away together. Liese has misgivings from the beginning about moving their relationship out of the artificial fantasy of meeting in other people’s apartments, but she’s about to leave Australia and the money Alexander is paying her for the weekend is more than welcome.

But as the car moves through the landscape and finally pulls up in front of the crumbling pile that is Alexander’s inheritance things take a more and more gothic hue. The weekend becomes a psychological cat and mouse game between the two protagonists. The reader sees things through Liese’s focalisation so we are initially sympathetic to her, but things are not that simple. Is Alexander just lonely, mistaking sex for love? Is Liese emotionally damaged in some way, seeing threats where none exist?

As I read this novel I kept thinking of Daphne Du Maurier thrillers like Rebecca or Don’t Look Now where the reader is never sure who to believe, although I found Hooper’s work darker and more claustrophobic.

I loved the nuance of this book and the twists and turns; it’s the hallmark of an accomplished writer that she can convince the reader to believe one thing and then a few pages later almost its opposite. Couple this with some very effective writing and you have a potent thriller that builds to an almost hysteric, deeply disturbing conclusion.

Out the truck windows there was chaos on either side, the vegetation dense and scrappy. We rushed past bursts of brilliant yellow wattle, bushes with bristling pod-like extrusions, the bulbous pigmy trees erupting in countless long green spikes – plants all designed in a radical workshop. Nowhere in England would you move so fast from pastoral land into vast, wild disorder.

Butterfly Song – Terri Janke

Terri Janke was an indigenous woman in her thirties when she published Butterfly Song in 2005. Like her heroine, Tarena, Janke also studied law in Sydney in the early 90s and is of mixed Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal heritage, so it’s probably safe to say many events in the novel follow Janke’s own life.

But what makes this novel different from a coming-of-age indigenous girl makes good story, is the device of telling the story around the fate of a pearl-shell brooch carved on Thursday Island and given to the carver’s lover, and which then turns up forty years later for sale in a Cairns antique shop.

Tarena has just finished her law degree when she’s asked by her mother, Lily, to run a case of misappropriation against the purported owner, and the shop. Lily has recognised the brooch as one owned by her late mother, Francesca and carved by her father, Kit, who died when Lily was a little girl.

Moving between TI, Cairns and Sydney and covering fifty years, or so, Janke introduces us to the love affair of Francesca and Kit, Lily and her brother Tally’s young life in Cairns, Tarena’s childhood and her life as a law student.

Some of these strands are more interesting than others. The scenes of pearl diving and life on TI in the 40s, and life in Queensland for indigenous people in the 50s, were interesting for me, but I found the scenes of student life in the 80s fairly bland.

Music, songs, frangipani trees and the ocean soften the reality of racism and the harshness of some aspects of the characters’ lives.

Throughout, Janke uses the brooch motif to weave all the threads together, and the courtroom scene where the ownership of the brooch is determined is suitable tense and moving.

Butterfly Song is an easy read and I appreciated getting an insight into the life of indigenous people in the Torres Strait and Queensland.

As a footnote, Janke was named NAIDOC person of the year in 2011: she’s now a well-known and successful lawyer specialising in indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights.

The Bay of Noon – Shirley Hazzard

As you can see from the cover I bought this novel many years ago. I would have been attracted by the title and by the setting – Naples. I must have started reading it and found it not to my taste. Looking for something (OK, I admit it – shortish) for the Australian women writers’ reading challenge, I plucked it off my shelf and attacked it anew – only twenty years on the ‘to read’ pile.

I know why I didn’t like it first time around: the prose is difficult and mannered, cerebral and artistic, rather than rich and evocative. It reminds me of Henry James or Patrick White, two writers I’ve never warmed to. Another writer that Hazzard reminds me of is Iris Murdoch with her distancing, clever prose and forensic character analysis. I can’t say I loved this novel but I think Hazzard is up there with Murdoch.

The actual plot of The Bay of Noon is pretty thin. It’s the 1950s and a young woman, Jenny, takes up a job to translate a report at a military base near Naples. Before leaving England she gets a letter of introduction from an actor acquaintance to a woman in Naples who has something to do with films. Immediately she meets her, Jenny feels at home with Giaconda and strikes up a friendship. Jenny is introduced to Giaconda’s married lover, Gianni, a film director from Rome. Meanwhile Jenny is compelled into a friendship with another expat, Justin, a Scottish scientist working in Naples.

With these characters in play, nothing much happens on the surface but it is the undercurrents of love, need, jealousy and betrayal that Hazzard is interested in. If the words ‘love, need, jealousy’ sound trite they are anything but in Hazzard’s hands. The characters, especially Giaconda and Gianni, are too sophisticated, or perhaps too damaged, to reveal themselves easily, and Jenny, from whose focalisation the story is told, is both brutally honest, and something of an innocent.

When I first bought this novel, Naples would have sounded terribly exotic: sun-bleached cliffs, blue bays, Pompeii – but having been there in the interval, I can now appreciate the characters’ ambivalence about it. Hazzard notes how there is really only one open civic square in the whole city; the rest is enclosed, narrow lanes, humanity piled on top of each other. Giaconda lives on the top floor of an old apartment block on one such lane while Jenny escapes the claustrophobia by renting a small apartment overlooking the Bay of Naples, (hence ‘the bay of noon’) affordable because of the difficulty of access.

There isn’t a lot of description of the city in this novel and what there is is certainly not postcard perfect. As with the characters, Hazzard is restrained, detailed and oblique.

I may not have loved this novel but I am glad that I read it; it reads like a classic, by that I mean, a guiding intelligence conveyed through masterful hands.

Puberty Blues – novel versus screen

I loved the recent TV series of Puberty Blues on Channel 10 and prompted by this decided to read the original book by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette. The novel was published in 1979 about the authors’ time as 13 year-old wannabe surfie chicks in Sutherland shire in 1973.

I remember the book was a sensation at the time and I vaguely remember a certain amount of disapproval. This normally would have sent me out to beg, borrow or buy a copy, but I didn’t – probably because I was scathing of surfing culture having spent some of my formative years in a beachside suburb in Newcastle.

I wonder what I would have made of the book at the time? I wouldn’t have been shocked; the carryings on were pretty familiar even if I wasn’t in the ‘bad girls’ gang of underage sex and regular drug taking. All the same, I guess I would have read it avidly, empathising with the girls.

But all these years later, and having seen the TV series, I was surprised that the book has none of the appeal of the TV show: no ravishing mise-en-scene (description), no sympathetic complex characters, nothing, in fact, beyond the closed world of the two teenage girl principals.

The book’s strength, on the other hand, is that it portrays a sociological snapshot of a particular subculture at a particular time. It is like reading a teenager’s diary with its preoccupation with friends, boyfriends, appearance and going out. That the authors were so young when they wrote it meant they could capture that claustrophobic, limited world where you’re still dependent on your parents yet you live in a tribal reality with your group.

But for an adult reader it is pretty dull and unrewarding. The traditional YA novel usually has a sensitive loner at its heart, someone who looks on the world they inhabit with fresh eyes and an understanding beyond their years (the gap between the adult writing the book and the teenager they are ‘inhabiting’).

Puberty Blues, the novel, doesn’t have this. The main character, Deb, merely narrates in a deadpan fashion her daily life as she and her friend Sue infiltrate the ‘cool’ kids gang and then have to drink, have back-of-the van sex and sit on the beach watching the guys surf. Deb is mildly ironic and this helps make the whole palatable but she is not, for the most part, reflective or critical – unlike in the TV series where Deb and Sue rescue Frieda who is regularly gang-banged by the boys, in the book, Deb thinks, ‘well, that’s what happens when you’re fat and ugly and can’t get a boyfriend’.

In the book Deb and Sue are fairly indistinguishable but in the TV series the writers (Tony McNamara, Fiona Seres and Alice Bell) present two distinct individuals – Sue more confident and sensible, Deb, flighty, imaginative and sensitive. In the book the parents hardly figure, while the TV series created a rich portrayal of 70s sexual experimentation, gender roles and social strictures. The two worlds in the series, the parents and the teenagers, play off each other giving a context to why the kids act the way they do, lending the viewer a much more nuanced, involving experience than that of the book.

It was interesting to see all those parents in flares, clogs and caftans: I guess some parents must have, and let’s face it, in those days, a teenager’s parents were probably only in their early thirties. My mother, I’m sure, was more like conservative teacher, Claudia Karvan, with her A-line skirts and belted-at-the-waist dresses, no trousers, no jeans (yes, young ones, there was a time where it was frowned on for women to wear pants). But, I have to say, I paid no attention to what my mother wore in the 70s. I was like Deb and Sue – the ‘olds’ didn’t exist.

I also take my hat off to the stylists in the TV show – I had the exact same horoscope poster on my wall that Deb had – however, apropos of the flares in the scene from the show above, Carey and Lette make it clear that the girls’ only ever wore straight-leg Levis!