The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey

This is a quiet, meditative novel. Middle-aged Erica sells up her apartment in Sydney to live on the south coast of NSW (I had previously read Lohrey’s novel Vertigo set in Tasmania and for some reason this story felt more like Tasmania to me than NSW). She has moved to be closer to her son who is serving a long sentence at a nearby prison. She rents a beach shack and immediately feels at home there, so she buys it. (Another quibble, beach shacks, even the run down variety, are gold on the south coast and unlikely to be waiting around for a spur-of-the-moment purchaser). Nevertheless, Lohrey is wonderful at description and mood and setting, and the reader settles into the rhythm of a low key life with the protagonist. We get to know the neighbours as she does – there is no sentimentality here, even the likeable ones get a critical eye from Erica. Underneath what might be a simple account of a sea-change, is the pain of Erica’s guilt over, and estrangement from, her son. The son is particularly unapproachable and unsympathetic, and I thought this was a brave and, probably, realistic portrayal. Erica has to cop it, as most mothers would, and sit in silence with him during the prison visits.

The labyrinth of the title is Erica’s project to keep her busy, to occupy her thoughts and her hands. It harks back to a maze of her childhood in the grounds of a mental institution where her father was a doctor. A labyrinth, though, is not a maze and there is quite a bit of discussion around different designs, the philosophy behind it, etc. Enter Jerko, an illegal immigrant, and stone mason in an earlier life, who decides to help with the construction. Again, there is no sentimentality, Jerko is abrupt and stand-offish. Things happen slowly, they don’t build to anything much, dramas are, as often as not, internalised. The highlight for me was a wonderfully described storm that causes a backwash in the lagoon which sends floodwaters seeping into Erica’s shack.

This novel is a string of incidents and thoughts, following the rhythms of a life. As with all such narratives, it is the writing, the description, and the authorial voice that carries it. And Lohrey succeeds in this. There has been some suggestion that the structure and pace of the book is designed to imitate the labyrinth – the meditative pacing, the folding back on itself, the goal of achieving the centre and then retreating. If so, this aspect was somewhat lost on me, though I do concede there is a sense of taking life at a walking pace, looking around, and then moving on.

PS Lovely cover that induced me to buy the paper book.

Best reads 2020

It is somewhat late for this but here are my best (and some worst) books for 2020.

Best Literary novel

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

I find it hard to pinpoint just what I loved about this short novel by the Polish Nobel laureate. Please don’t be put off by the title, it’s not about the holocaust, or massacres, unless you think we humans’ treatment of animals is something like that. It is not a grand book, it has a small canvas – an out of the way hamlet in rural Poland. The novel does have one of my pet loves, that is, a tough older woman taking on the (small) world. It is ostensibly a murder mystery as Janina’s neighbours start turning up dead. Janina takes it into her own head to find out what’s going on, amidst the snow and harsh conditions. Yeah, I can’t explain why I loved it but I just did.

Honourable mentions to The Inheritance of Loss by Kiren Desai, Madeline Miller’s wonderful Circe, Wolfe Island, as below, and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell which is an interesting and brave take on complicity and abuse in a sexual relationship between a male teacher and female student.

Best Fantasy or speculative

A good year for this. I particularly enjoyed The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon as well as Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve never felt like reading his adult books but this children’s/YA one of a young aspiring female pilot, carrying the burden of her father’s cowardice in battle, and her talking ‘ship’, was well-written and absorbing.

I am an avid fan of Garth Nix and am currently rereading his ‘Abhorsen’ books (sigh, cry etc. etc.). His latest The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a gem – set in the 80s, there is some great nostalgia for us who lived through it as young adults, plus the usual fantastic characters and dark plot.

 Best book with a tough woman protagonist

This is my find for 2020 – tough, older women not taking it anymore. As well as Olga Tokarscuk, there’s Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth who turns her gimlet eye on siblings and inheritance in Will and Testament and guilt, solitude, selfishness and art in A House in Norway. US writer Ottessa Moshfegh adopts a similar delicious tone in Death in Her Hands. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I just love it.

Best audiobook

A good book can be ruined by the wrong narrator/performer but the right one can bring so much out in a book I otherwise might not have read. Abbe Holmes’ southern drawl in Wolfe Island gave resonance to the protagonist, the wonderful dry, tough, Kitty Hawke, I loved it. The crisp British tones of Sophie Aldred makes her one of my favourite narrators and she didn’t disappoint in Skyward. I don’t know if I would have picked up the paper version of Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, but having it narrated to be by Anna-Maria Nabirye made it a pleasure. Jenny Agata couldn’t have been more perfect for Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels.

Book that doesn’t deserve the hype

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I guess you can’t get more hyped than being short-listed for the Booker prize (besides winning it). The Shadow King certainly garnered a lot of accolades with reveiwers often viewing it as affirmation of women as the author references in an afterword, her great-grandmother who fought against the invasion of Ethiopia by the Italian fascists. However, if the novel is supposed to be ‘an exploration of female power, it’s a depressing portrayal. Rather than being about the rewards of rebellion, the competency of women fighting alongside men, it is more about the ‘fog of war’, its ugliness, the viciousness of fascism, and who suffers the most – the poor, the third world, the women. We see women (and the protagonist, Hirut, in particular) used, abused, raped, taken for granted and dismissed.

I found the novel to be so overwritten, so consciously oblique, that for much of its length I had a hard time working out what was actually happening. For its popularity, I can only conclude that many people have read into this book what they want it to say. Its elusiveness and opacity allow for this.

Most objectionable book

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

I didn’t like the treatment of women in this. It’s a long dry, cerebral work. No one seems to care what happens to Yasuko, the main female character who is in fear of her ex-husband, or about her fourteen-year-old daughter. We are supposed to care about the fate of Yasuko’s next-door neighbour (male) who helps her out. As long as the detective (male) and his mathematics professor sidekick (male) resolve the fiendishly clever ‘problem’, that’s all that matters. For crime to be satisfying, it’s not just about puzzle-solving, it’s about justice, and I don’t mean merely in the legal sense.

Guilty comfort reads

I loved  Sujata Massey’s recent crime novels set in 1920s India – The Widows of Malabar Hill and The Satapur Moonstone so I sought out her backlist of crime novels of 1980s Japan. Rei Shamura is half-Japanese half-American and trying to start up a business as an antiques consultant in Tokyo. Although they are  light crime investigations with an edge of romance, Massey is more serious about exploring aspects of Japanese life and culture from an outsider’s perspective (Rei is never allowed to forget she’s not a proper Japanese). They are a lot of fun and cover aspects such as Buddhism, the history of kimono, flowering arranging etc.

Best Australian books 

Wolfe Island and Heather Rose’s Bruny. It might be far-fetched in places, but she goes right in there with her take on corruption and politics in the Apple Isle, and a prodigal daughter with secrets of her own – a lot of fun.

Best crime 

Not a great year for this but I enjoyed, admired and respected Dorothy L Sayers’ Nine Tailors. On a lesser plane, but nevertheless enjoyable was Lucy Atkins’ Oxford-set Magpie Lane. Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflowers Murders was devilishly clever with a full crime novel contained within the crime novel. I take my hat off to him.

Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

I would have found this an interesting, absorbing, affecting novel if Crawdads had continued on as it started – a tale of a lonely, abandoned ‘marsh girl’ who channels her love and interest into nature rather than humans (who have so betrayed her). Owens’ history as a naturalist shines through in the wonderful descriptions of the watery marshlands of North Carolina (which we now call wetlands, recognising their diversity and importance). While it is perhaps hard to believe in young Kya as a total autodidact (she attends school for only one day), her salvation is the study of the environment around her.

I was taken by the idea of seven-year-old Kya learning to live on her own in a shack on the water, scraping together just enough food to keep herself going, befriending seabirds, dodging truant officers, and having to be tamed into a tentative friendship by Tate, a boy a couple of years older  who can see past the small town’s prejudice against the ‘white trash’ who live marginal lives in and around the waterways.

However, woven in with this initial story, is the suspicious death some fifteen years later of well-off, tear-away town-boy Chase who has fallen from a watchtower. Just how Kya is linked to this death is the trajectory the novel takes, and this is where, to my mind, it strays into genre fiction territory. I can only think that Owens thought there was just not enough in the story of Kya overcoming odds to become accepted in society and to live her life as a successful naturalist. The phenomenal success of the book probably proves her right, but there is something terribly wrong with the denouement of the novel.

The final twist is a betrayal of the reader. (Spoiler below) For a novel to be successful it has to have an internal consistency. Owens goes to some lengths to develop Kya as a character – she is hurt and betrayed but she overcomes this, she finds friends and allies. She matures and is essentially a good, independent person. For the final twist to work we must believe [that she planned an elaborate murder, she was able to lure Chase, who last we saw she’d punched and kicked after he raped her, to the watchtower at a particular time, that she was able to concoct disguises with no one twigging it, that in a tiny town they actually had buses running at night, that somehow she either had the red wool hat with her, or went home to get it, or that the fibres were left on Chase’s jacket from years before, that even though she only had twenty minutes to do the whole thing she removed footprints in the dark including Chase’s which if she was so clever she would have left. We also have to accept that she wrote a poem about the killing and kept the tell-tale shell necklace in a hiding place in the shack (although the sheriff thoroughly searched it) for poor Tate to find after her death. Why? She hated Chase, why would she keep the necklace?

And the final betrayal that is totally out of character is Kya accepting the support of her ‘friends’ (Jumpin, Mabel, Tate, Tate’s dad, her editor). The reader feels good about their loyalty to Kya in court, the way they stand by her as she professes her innocence, when all the while their support is betrayed. That is not the behaviour of the Kya we know – she committed the murder, she would either have admitted it, or she would have never been caught, disappearing into the marsh back to a lonely, isolated life.

A House in Norway by Vigdis Hjorth

Alma is a middle-aged textile artist living by herself near the sea in a picturesque part of Norway. To help with her finances, she rents out an annex to her house. She lets the annex to a young Polish woman, her boyfriend and young child. To begin with she prides herself on being broad-minded, happy to rent the place out to low-wage people with perhaps a tenuous legal status, but she can’t quite live up to this. She needs the rent but she doesn’t really want to share her space with strangers – the fact that the Polish woman can’t speak Norwegian, doesn’t help, especially when the woman is the victim of domestic violence and the boyfriend breadwinner moves out. Alma comes to a new rental agreement with the woman with the social services involved.  Alma gets slightly annoyed when officialdom takes the side of “the Pole”, as she calls her, although it’s Alma’s house.

Vigdis Hjorth is very good at doing low-level conflict. In her later novel Will and Testament, it is between siblings over the wills of their parents. Alma is not a bad person, in fact she’s funny and a serious creative, but certain things such as the Polish woman running radiators at full bore, while Alma herself is parsimonious and pays the electricity bills, drives her mad. Alongside the growing tension between the two women, Alma muses over her tapestries such as one for her old school and one for the Constitutional committee for a Norwegian anniversary. I found the description of the creative process and how ideas are worked up into creative pieces to be totally absorbing, no mean feat.

Alma is aware of her privileged position vis-à-vis her Polish tenant who works as a cleaner and is a single mother (Alma is divorced and has grown-up children) yet there is an almost insurmountable barrier between them. Alma reflects on what the Pole must think of her – half-drunk, sleep-deprived when working on her commissions, a haphazard housekeeper while the Pole keeps the annex neat as a pin, although overstuffed with gee-gaws, to Alma’s distain.

Things come to a head when the Pole’s husband returns from prison and, after ignoring Alma or putting up with her, Slawomira (as we find out the Pole is called) begins to fight back. Alma has based her Constitutional tapestry on a nineteenth century story she’d read about a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage who runs away and is caught and sent to an asylum where she commits suicide. Again, Hjorth does a great job of showing us Alma’s thought process here and how she converts it to a visual work. As Alma becomes frantic about making her deadline and what the Poles might do next, the themes of the book coalesce. I loved Alma. I related to her angst, her self-reliance, her will to be generous and her justifications for not being, her nice line in self-mockery. She’s messy and fallible. Hjorth’s enjoyable deadpan narration keeps what is a fairly slight story, in plot terms, bubbling along.

Short story – Bushfire by Kate Grenville

Bushfire – Kate Grenville

Something Special, Something Rare – Black Inc

Despite its title, ‘Bushfire’ is not predominantly about a bushfire, it is a relationship story, a love story. The fire does appear, however, in the second paragraph: ‘brown smoke hid the contours of the hills over in the distance and smudged the sky. After a term in Mindurra Public school, she had got used to seeing the hills … It was unsettling to have lost them now.’

We are thus introduced to our focalising character, Louise, an outsider to the small town. Louise has walked into town to see if she can volunteer to help with the firefighting but not being particularly useful, she’s sent off to make sandwiches. On her way to the hall, she glimpses a man on a fire truck ‘half-hidden among hoses and tanks’. He lifts a hand in greeting but she is taken by surprise and ‘by the time she waved back, the truck had gone’. We are then given a flashback when Louise recalls the time at a town fair when a busybody intending to matchmake had got the man, Lloyd, to bring her a cup of tea, and then ensues an awkward conversation between them. Again, Louise seems out of synch: although Lloyd blurts out some information about himself, she can’t manage to engage with him – ‘Yes, she’d managed to say, feeling the startled look on her face, hearing it in her voice’. She observes, fascinated, as a blush spreads over Lloyd’s face and neck, and then, to her own discomfiture, she begins to blush herself: ‘It was as if her skin and his were having a conversation with each other, all by themselves’.

This image tells the reader something that Louise only slowly works out for herself as she makes the sandwiches.

A man comes into the refreshment hall from the fires, panicked and excited, and this brings us back to the moment of fear and tension and Louise sees that something she thought mundane about Lloyd might be a ‘kind of heroism’. There is then a flashback to one of Louise’s ex-husbands a survivalist type who said if they were separated, he would meet her on the steps of the Gunnedah post office. She reflects sardonically, that he was ‘not the type of man she would want to find’. This train of thought leads her back to Lloyd and the missed opportunity of her conversation with him that the fire has brought into focus: ‘he would not be burned alive. He would come back down’. The last sentence of the story harks back to the blushing incident and places it at the centre of the meaning of the narrative – ‘perhaps they could continue the conversation that their skins … had already begun’.

This is a charming story that shows Grenville’s ear for human frailty, and for the foibles of quiet, overlooked people. The bushfire is a device that brings the mishandled and awkward meeting between the main characters into focus, and gives it a time imperative. The device of the blush device that has their two bodies ‘talking to each other’ works well, and the heat in their faces links in to the heat of the fires. Like the fire it can either overrun them, or the wind can change and it could go off in another direction.

This story was first published in The Bulletin and in Best Australian Stories 2000.

When reading it, I was reminded that one of my favourite novels is Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection (recently reissued by Text) which has a similar mismatched couple at its core.

The Carer by Deborah Moggach

This is one of those strange books that I thought was fantastic and well-realised for the first two thirds and then annoying, boring and disappointing for the last third. Moggach has some insightful, humorous and poignant things to say about the dilemma middle-aged children have when their parents become frail and elderly. Narrated alternately from the points of view of the siblings Robert and Phoebe – one a well-off aspiring writer in an unhappy marriage and the other a single fiftyish woman living in a village doing unsatisfying artwork and having a casual affair with a guy who lives in a caravan in the woods. The siblings’ mother has died and their ex-scientist Dad (with slight dementia) needs full-time care in the home. Neither one wants to give up their life to do this, so they employ a series of carers. The latest one, Mandy, seems ideal: capable, cheerful and efficient. They think they can sit back and relax but things about Mandy start to worry them, and the reader. So far so enjoyable. Then comes a twist that seemed forced and unlikely to me, and at two thirds of the way through, new (and boring) characters are introduced. Moggach lost me at that point. I didn’t want to read the rest but forced myself to.

Milkman by Anna Burns

I think this is an absolutely amazing novel but one that I may well have not read. It was only because it was a daily deal on Audible that I thought, why not? And it has blown me away (read by a wonderful narrator: Brid Brennan). I credit Brennan with bringing Burns’s unique and inventive and charming and funny and dark and unexpected voice to life. Milkman hangs on the point of view of Burn’s first person 18-year-old unnamed narrator – we can call her middle sister because all the characters are named in their relation to others. Even the Milkman of the title is called that because people don’t know his identity – he is just high up in the paramilitary, unforthcoming, dangerous and threatening to our narrator.

The world of middle sister is narrowly confined in the segregated unnamed city. Everyone’s lives are circumscribed by the sectarian splits, and the oppression of the forces from ‘the place over the water’. The fact none of this is spelt out, or even explained – it’s just the ‘political situation’ – reinforces a sense that people just get on with it. For our narrator, it is her accepted world, she just has to learn how to navigate it, how to survive. Almost every family in her ‘area’ has had members killed, every family has sons who join the ‘renouncers’, any innocent action like going to a (state) hospital, or talking to the wrong person, might get you named an informer and summary justice meted out. Much black humour is had at one place when middle sister’s ‘maybe-boyfriend’, who works as a mechanic, gets a much-coveted part of an abandoned Bentley. The fact the car had a flag (from the place over the water) on it made it suspect, and there is much debate about whether the male interest in cars should trump solidarity around hatred of the oppressors.

Writer Anna Burns presented with the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2018

For something that could be bleak – the narrator is stalked by Milkman who has taken an interest in her and she knows that, in the long-run, she would probably be powerless against him (the rumour mill has it that she is having an affair with him although, in fact, she is terrified of him) – it is really, entertaining, amusing, with flights of linguistic brilliance (Joyce, Beckett, is not a far-fetched comparison). This is not cold pyrotechnics, though: it’s humane, insightful, with acts of kindness and compassion, as well as violence. Who would have thought you could go into the world of the troubles and find it so interesting, absorbing, humorous. Much of this is to do with middle-sister’s way of looking at it: she’s an odd-person out, on the cusp of what her society calls ‘beyond the pale’ – she’s rouses suspicion for her ‘reading while walking’, for her propensity to stay silent, to withdraw – but that’s what great narrators have to be, they have to see things from the outside, from the inside. This is just a great piece of literature – a worthy recipient of the Booker prize. No precis can convey how brilliant this book is, you just have to read it.

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 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.