Best, Worst and In-between 2019

Last year was a bumper year for me regarding reading. All my life I have been a slow reader, something that didn’t help me when I studied English Literature (yes, there was such a category back then). In 2019 I read 68 books, a record number for me. I put this down to two things: I no longer work part time and only now do occasionally editing, as well as appraisals and my own writing, leaving me more time for reading. Also, I have become a devotee of audiobooks, going through most of the ones I wanted from the local library and then having to bite the bullet and subscribe to Audible, which opened up a cornucopia of titles. I had the sort of thrill over this I used to get going into a gorgeous big, well-stocked bookstore such as the old Collins at Broadway, Borders in Pitt St (also gone long ago) and Dymocks in George St. (I still get it at the overwhelming but wonderful Kinokunya near Town Hall).

When my credit comes up in Audible, I’m almost frozen with the choice available. I will say, though, that there is an added level of decision-making with audiobooks because even my most anticipated or desired title can be ruined by the narrator. Conversely, a wonderful narrator can take a book to another level of enjoyment and appreciation – I think this was the case with the incredibly good narrators for Anna Burns’ Milkman (Brid Brennan), the Elena Ferrante books (Hillary Hubert) and The Goldfinch (David Pittu). As a rule of thumb, I would caution authors against reading their own works (yes, I’m talking about you Philip Pullman). There are, of course, exceptions: who can go past Christopher Hitchens reading Hitch 22 or Helen Garner reading Everywhere I look?

It is interesting that listening to audiobooks, rather than substituting for reading, have added to it. I can listen to an audiobook doing housework, or gardening or going on walks. When I’m tired, or my eyes are sore, I can lie back and be taken away into a wonderful parallel world. One other cautionary note, I can’t listen to difficult (i.e. violent, or frightening, overly complicated) audiobooks before going to bed or I won’t get to sleep. The same can be said for a page-turning thriller – I have to keep listening until I get to a pause in the action. This is the same with the physical act of reading a paper book or ebook, but because I’m sitting up, having to hold an object and turn pages, somehow it’s easier to put the book aside and turn the light off.

Favourite Book Literary: Milkman by Anna Burns. Honourable mentions, Overstory Richards Powers, The Goldfinch Donna Tartt, Machines Like Me Ian McEwen and Ghost Wall Sarah Moss.

Favourite book fantasy/SF: The Secret Commonwealth Philip Pullman. Honourable mention, Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie.

Favourite NF: Not a great year for this, but I enjoyed Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs and Bright Swallow by Vivian Bi – both insightful and enthralling family biographies.

Favourite audiobook: There have been some wonderful ones. Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, The Goldfinch and Ancillary Justice are stand-outs.

Most disappointing book: The Carer Deborah Moggach. I had high hopes for this novel and it let me down badly.

Book that didn’t live up to its hype: The Wall John Lanchester and My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite. How either of these two were long-listed for the Booker prize, I don’t know. The Wall is a fairly lightweight dystopian novel that might have been favoured because its subject matter of refugees being held at bay by a wall surrounding Britain was topical. It started out well, but the storyline became more and more unconvincing. There is nothing wrong with My Sister, the Serial Killer but, again, it is very lightweight. Braithwaite had a fun idea of a woman covering for her sister who seems to have a penchant for disposing of boyfriends, but she didn’t really take this premise anywhere particularly interesting. There are amusing, short chapters and it’s a quick read; and that’s the most I can say for it.

Best comfort read: Their Fractured Light Amie Kaufman, the last in the Starbound Trilogy – the couples at the centre of the previous novels join together to take on the very nasty LaRoux Industries who think nothing of a bit of genocide when any of their terraformed planets go wrong. It sounds tough going but it’s really a lot of hijinks, action and URST.

Best Australian: Joan London’s beautiful and sad Gilgamesh

Book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading: In the Garden of Beasts Erik Larson. Long and tedious. Larson pulls off the extraordinary – making Berlin in the 30s boring.

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.

Rereading Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Milton Hall inspired Manderley

Apparently, Rebecca has not been out of print since it was first published in 1938. It was boosted, no doubt, by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, and with many adaptations since (Netflix has one in the pipeline). I first read Rebecca many years ago in my twenties and loved it. First and foremost, it is a very well written mystery. Du Maurier is excellent at misdirection, withholding and building a tense, slightly Gothic atmosphere. It’s not for nothing that the opening line ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’ has gone into the popular imagination.

Joan Fontaine in the excruciating ball scene

I have to admit that my second ‘reading’ was really listening to the audiobook narrated by the well-known actress, Anna Massey. Her voice is, I think, too old for the young narrator (in her early twenties) but, in defence of Massey, the novel is narrated in retrospect by the older ‘never mind how many years’ unnamed narrator. I will call her J, for Jane, as the parallels to Jane Eyre are obvious, and we can’t keep mixing her up with the first Mrs De W. Massey adopts a posh, upper class intonation that, initially, is very annoying. However, it is also appropriate – Maxim de Winter is stinking rich. Manderley is a huge stately home with a large number of servants, including the butler, Frith and, of course, Mrs Danvers the housekeeper. She is no char, she runs the large staff, providing Mrs de Winter with a menu in the morning for the day’s meals. It is one of the first instances of her distain for the new Mrs de Winter, that she has no opinion on this. ‘Whatever you think, Mrs Danvers’ is her perpetual reply. Maxim has an estate manager, Frank Crawley, and so doesn’t have to do any very much by the way of oversight. We first meet Maxim, as does J, in a fancy hotel in Monte Carlo where J is suffering the petty humiliations of being a companion to the wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper.

Coming to this book the second time around, there were things that irritated me quite a lot. One aspect was the leisured lifestyle of de Winter. Somehow, because Manderley is so beloved by Maxim, that makes the idea of his immense wealth acceptable. Because of J’s meekness and mildness, there is no suggestion she is desirous of this wealth. In fact, her main concern is not being up to the job of lady of the house. Her, tastes, we are led to believe, are modest and simple: she has shabby clothes that she doesn’t appear to update when she arrives at Manderley, ‘I can see myself now … with straight, bobbed hair and youthful unpowdered face, dressed in an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of my own creation.’ No wonder Mrs Danvers looks on with cold disapproval. Du Maurier cleverly deflects any criticism of J and Maxim by presenting them first to the reader in their exile in Europe: for reasons unknown to us until late in the narrative, they can’t return to their beloved Manderley and are instead made to live a quiet life in small hotels awaiting their the English papers and their tea (No, don’t be silly, they can’t find something useful to do. Poor old Maxim is born into the idle rich. No, they can’t take an interest in the countries they are in. It’s not England. The light is too bright and hurts J’s eyes!) Their exile is obviously painful, (and we want to find out why) so we forgive them their xenophobia.

Then, of course, J is a nobody. She is well-bred and middle class, and has finer feelings, because she cringes at the overbearing antics of Mrs van Hopper. We first meet Maxim when he lunches at the next table in the hotel. Old Hopper pounces on him and, of course, he has to put up with her because she’s wealthy and upper-class New York. Luckily, the old termagant gets a cold and Maxim can whisk J around in his car. Here is the romance trope – wealthy, distant, confident man falls for poor (usually beautiful) but good and sensitive girl. The ordinary woman reader puts herself in place of the girl (if only, she fantasises). Like Jane Eyre, J is not beautiful but ‘plain’, although we suspect the plainness is really a lack of confidence (it is interesting in film/TV adaptations the actresses are not ‘plain’). Of course, thinks the heroine, this rich, confident man couldn’t love me, and from this comes the trials and the tribulations of our Janes.

This brings me to my next gripe. I couldn’t stand J’s diffidence in the face of Mrs Danvers and the county types she has to deal with at Manderley. J is forever hiding behind doors so as not to be seen, breaking expensive ornaments and hiding them, scuttling upstairs when visitors come … Perhaps as a younger reader I could relate to this but now I wanted to scream at J. When Danvers catches J in Rebecca’s old room, J acts like she’s a child caught out, she’s terrified and rooted to the spot while Danvers goes around showing her all Rebecca’s beautiful things – even the nightdress she wore before she died still crinkled with use (icky, but nice touch Daphne!). Yes, I know, du Maurier has to work it so that J is intimidated and jealous of Rebecca so that she can set up the betrayal scene at the ball, but does J have to be that wet?

I also took objection to J’s continual deference to Maxim – yes dear, no dear, of course dear. Somehow in this romance trope, it doesn’t matter what the man is like – that his character, at least on the surface is obnoxious – he has to be distant, brusque, self-confident so that the ‘winning’ of him is all the sweeter. Maxim is pretty much a self-centred arrogant toff. He doesn’t really share things with J, but plonks her down in Manderley and expects her to work things out for herself. He infantilises her but at least she is aware of this and it begins to grate on her. Why he should choose her for his attentions in Monte Carlo is not made clear. The reader hopes it is because he sees that J is fundamentally decent and kind and is in need of rescue from the horrible Hopper. Like Rochester in Jane Eyre his feeling have to necessarily be opaque (they are both hiding secrets) so that the heroine can misconstrue them. However, as the story progresses, we can see that he needed someone compliant, who would love him without making demands of her own, she would lack her own agency, so much so that she would forgive him his transgression. As in Jane Eyre this power relationship is reversed somewhat in the end – Rochester is blinded and disfigured in the fire at Thornfield Hall and needs Jane’s assistance – only after this can she say, ‘Reader, I married him’ at the end – another iconic line. Maxim is emotionally scarred after Manderley’s fire and needs our Jane to aid him in his ‘exile’ and she will keep his secret forever.

[SPOILER – BELOW I DISCUSS THE ENDING]

Manabilly – Du Maurier’s more modest house

It is telling, that when J finds out about Maxim killing Rebecca, she is not shocked, is not appalled, only says over and over again ‘he did not love Rebecca’ – there is no moral issue in this murder, only an emotional one. Du Maurier has painted Rebecca so blackly that we want Maxim to get away with it, so J can get her reward i.e. to be with him and to have him confess his love for her.

Which brings me to my next gripe – the portrayal of Rebecca. Rebecca has to be beautiful and glamorous so the more ordinary J is jealous of her and her feelings of inadequacy heightened. Mrs Danvers taunts J with all the lovely things in Rebecca’s room that she keeps as a shrine to her. Rebecca keeps herself well-groomed, wears expensive clothes, goes up to London to shop. So? She’s an upper-class woman married to an extremely wealthy man. Maxim would have known this about her, as well as her love of the good life before he married her. We are supposed to believe she can make herself charming to everybody and she hoodwinked him. On her honeymoon on the French Riviera she tells him the truth (at the very spot he takes J on their first outing – on a cliff overlooking the sea). Maxim is so incensed that he contemplates throwing Rebecca off – nice! Never heard of divorce, Maxim? Rebecca’s ‘sin’ and what makes the shooting of her understandable, and forgivable to our heroine, is that she has some unspecified unsavoury tastes. As far as we can tell, these are parties, drink and promiscuity – the same ‘sins’ that if a man showed them, the wife would be expected to put up with them. Maxim has to kill her because she’s taken to inviting her not-very-nice friends down to his beloved Manderley. By the way, no one else has an inkling Rebecca is anything other than wonderful but to rub it in Du Maurier has her hit on Maxim’s sister’s portly, old fuddy-duddy husband, Giles, possibly for a laugh, possibly because she’s insatiable – she also has an affair with her smarmy cousin, Favell, again, for no understandable reason. In fact, Rebecca is even at fault in her own death, smiling as Maxim shoots her in a sort of suicide-by-husband, we are supposed to believe. The one thing that does make her plainly reprehensible is the threat to put Ben, an intellectually disabled man, ‘in the asylum’ if he breathes a word of her goings on in the cottage on the bay. She should have been able to charm him the way she did everyone else but Du Maurier needs this threat to build tension in the inquest section near the end. I’m sure Du Maurier does not intend it, but Rebecca’s venality here is offset somewhat, by our heroine (and Maxim) referring to Ben as the ‘idiot’ and imputing him with a ‘sly smile’.

This is not to say Rebecca is not a good book in many ways. I admire the control du Maurier has over the story – the structure is masterly, the reader is led down several garden paths, and the atmosphere is beautifully evoked. Many novels (and novelists) go out of favour because of the values they inhere but some, such as Rebecca, manage to dodge this. Perhaps the novel is not seen as literature, and so it gets a leave pass, or we convince ourselves that a life of comfortable idleness abroad is sufficient penance for a murderer and his wife (an ‘accessory after the fact’). But, who cares?  She gets her man and that’s the main thing.

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.