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.

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.

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

The odd case of The Bookshop

2018 film tie-in cover

I was drawn to buy Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, ‘The Bookshop’, because of the arresting image on the cover of actress Emily Mortimer as the novel’s heroine, Florence Green. Mortimer is dark, attractive, bookish, brooding, in stylish retro orange shirt and striped skirt standing outside a quaint small-town bookshop (which, let’s face it, every lover of books has once or twice fantasised about owning). The novel was published in 1978 but is set in 1959 Britain, in the small East Anglian town of Hardborough. The novel has been reissued a number of times, most notably in 1997 where it was reviewed favourably in the New York Times.

If I thought the novel was going to be actually about opening a bookshop, I was sorely disappointed. If I thought it was going to be about a strong, independent woman standing up to sexist forces against her, I would also be wrong. Why it has now been chosen as material for a film, is also perplexing to me. What does it have to say to audiences in 2018? If the crowd of women of, shall we say, a certain age at my local cinema is any indication, it is presented as one of those quirky films about starting over in a picturesque place somewhere like rural France, Tuscany, a Greek island etc. etc. meeting resistance, and finally being accepted. Casting Bill Nye as the curmudgeonly recluse who warms to Florence, suggests the filmmaker intended to move the film in this direction, but I think she was trying to be faithful to the source material, so this felt false and was, quite frankly, excruciating.

2003 cover

So back to the novel. I found this short novel (156 pages) to be extremely frustrating, continually subverting expectations. It was nominated for the Booker prize in 1978 (Fitzgerald won it the following year for ‘Offshore’), surprising for such a weird, inconsistent and improbable tale. Many critics view it as a comedy of manners but I think this misses the mark – there are certainly comedy-of-manners aspects to it, the society party thrown by Violet Gamart where Florence is subtly belittled, is one, as is the bizarre tea party between Florence and Mr Brundish (Bill Nye’s character) – but the tone veers wildly from comedy to realism to satire, even to the supernatural, so that the reader is pretty much always at sea.

Speaking of sea, I find it quite interesting that the covers for the earlier editions depicted scenes of nature at the seaside (the film, also has Florence often sitting on the wintery beach when, really, she should have been running her bookshop!) In the book she only goes once or twice, but these scenes are very brief and she is certainly not a communing with nature, again the reader/viewer wants Florence to be something that Fitzgerald is just not going to let us have.

No character in ‘The Bookshop’ is without flaws, even Florence herself. The most venal is Violet Gamart, who, on a whim, wants the building that Florence has bought and partially renovated, for her own pet project of an arts centre. Florence stands her ground but then seems to forget she has created an enemy. Raven, who is a nature man, gets the sea scouts he leads to help Florence through putting up shelves and painting, yet he also sets up an eleven-year-old paid assistant for her resulting in Florence falling foul of labour laws (Florence has previously worked in a big bookshop where she met

1978 cover

her late husband so she should have known better). We also meet Miles North, a BBC type, who spends his time in a cottage with his girlfriend avoiding actually doing any work. Miles is weak, is emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, and a sycophant to Violet, yet Florence inexplicable befriends him, and even, when she loses Christine her underage assistant, agrees to employ him part time (Why would someone who works for the BBC want to work for Florence, especially as we know he is a lazy sod? Why would Florence employ him when we know, at this stage, she is in financial difficulties? Why would any bookshop owner in her right mind order 250 copies of ‘Lolita’ to sell in a small town? Why would a bank manager lend Florence the money to purchase the premises when everyone in town knows it is riddled with damp?) There are many improbabilities that pile up to conspire against Florence. She meanwhile contents herself with writing silly letters to her lawyer and being duped by everyone. Mr Brundish in a fairly ineffectual way tries to warn Florence but she remains oblivious. He takes it upon himself to confront Violet – the only positive act in the novel to help Florence – but in a final stroke to frustrate and annoy the reader, this comes to nothing.

The final sentence, I suppose reveals Fitzgerald’s cynical and satirical intent: ‘As the train drew out from the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for ten years had not wanted a bookshop.’ No, Florence, wrong. You are not a heroine, not a fighter for a greater purpose, you are the victim of the malice of one privileged person and your own passivity and misplaced trust. You are a fool who acted on a whim, and didn’t have the sense or fortitude to carry it through. It is quite clear that the town did want a bookshop, as initially the shop did well. Florence made some bad decisions on the stock, the people she employed, and the condition of the building. If anything, this is a cautionary tale of capitalism: it’s dog eat dog and you have to be tough to survive. That’s why we all dream of owning a bookshop, and leave the actual running of them to people who know books are a commodity. Poor Florence.