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About MisterHobgoblin

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    many cultures : one world
  • Birthday May 29


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  • How did you hear about this site?
    Calliope introduced me

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    Bouncing Australiana

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  1. Bernard MacLaverty

    Bernard MacLaverty is a sublime writer and Midwinter Break is as good as anything he has ever written. Gerry and Stella Gilmore are a long-married couple of pensionable age, living in Glasgow but originally from the north of Ireland. Gerry is fond of a nightcap and Stella has quite a strong Catholic faith. They know one another inside out. They have decided to take a mid-winter break to Amsterdam, perhaps to celebrate their enduring marriage. Gradually, and gently, we start to see the flaws in the characters emerge. This is done with such grace; the reader knows, likes and empathises with both Gerry and Stella; the flaws that emerge are real, but we see the real people beneath and they are likeable. As they wander the streets of Amsterdam - both together and separately - they start to discover more about themselves and each other. Partly, they explore the present day, partly their lives in Glasgow, and partly their lives in Ireland. This is a novel about ageing. I recognise myself in Gerry. In fact, the similarity between Gerry's life and my own is uncanny - right down to the night-time leg cramps. There are themes of unfulfilled ambition, fatigue, closure. There is guilt, including the nagging guilt about minor slights and mistakes from years ago. But also there is lots and lots of love. Not bodice ripping young love, but old, mature love that is too often taken for granted. There is change, often not for the better. The change of a nature of a community, the change brought by significant events, and the change brought simply by time, with two people slowly ceasing to be who they once were. The questions that arise are whether to resist or accept those changes. It is an illustration of the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference." Midwinter Break is deeply moving. It speaks of truths that many of us will face some day soon. *****
  2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a long and sprawling novel that seems to cover a vast swathe of current political issues, seen through the lens of modern Indian society.We open with the story of Anjum, an intersex woman who identifies as female despite being brought up as a boy. She finds others in the same position and joins a community with them in Delhi’s old town. But gradually, she branches out on her own and forms her own community of oddballs and misfits, hanging out in a graveyard. Much of the mis-fitting seems to stem from religious and caste based prejudice.Then the story shifts to Kashmir and the struggle between Islam and Hinduism as it escalates into full-on war. We meet a different cast of characters, one of whom, Tilo, an architect and activist, is to be the lynchpin of the Kashmiri part of the book. However, Tilo’s central role is not immediately obvious and emerges almost by default as other characters fall away.This is a difficult book with a cast of hundreds, multiple story lines and themes jostling for attention. All with lengthy asides drawing on literature, poetry, political invective and spiritualism. And there are whole sections that are so esoteric they are almost unintelligible. And the Tilo and Anjum sections of the novel never integrate. They don’t even try to integrate. It is as though multiple sections of various incomplete novels have been gathered and bound together.At a conceptual level, it conveys the chaos of India. Individual scenes are very evocative – whether that is in a bustling market, a protest outside Jantar Mantar or in a cinema turned torture centre in Srinigar. But as a story telling exercise it just doesn’t work. There is little plot and negligible character development. It feels like a series of scenes created and loosely linked to illustrate political points. That’s something that might work in a shorter work, but after so much of the Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it has long outstayed its welcome.Nevertheless, the book clearly has something. Normally a work this disjointed would have been abandoned relatively early in the piece. But the more lucid pieces do command the attention and the novel does create a level of intrigue to see where it all might be heading. ***00
  3. Emily Maguire

    Strathdee – a truck stop half way between Sydney and Melbourne – population 3,000. Bella, a young care worker at the local residential care facility, has disappeared and turned up brutally murdered in a nearby field. The police have no leads. Bella’s sister Chris is struggling with her grief. May Norman, a relatively new crime reporter for an online newspaper has been sent to Strathdee to report on events as they unfold. So An Isolated Incident sets out like a thousand other police procedurals: two different POV narratives (Chris and May) plus news clippings of May’s articles. All neatly arranged into day long sections. Who could have done it – any one of a parade of suspects whose lives intersect with Chris and May…But as the novel continues, it starts to depart from the script. The police continue to have no clue; May does not stumble across the vital clue; and Chris does not play the part of the steely, pure victim determined to avenge her sister. Instead we see a portrayal of how a community fragments under close scrutiny. Rivalries and suspicions emerge. We find bad things that have happened in the past and continue to happen. Beneath the veneer of mateship we find defensive people who demand big thanks for small favours but would never dream of actually putting themselves out for anyone. And so people play their roles. The police go through the motions of arranging a pointless press conference at which Chris will be the star. They ask intrusive questions and appear to judge according to their lifestyles. May, the principled journalist, is willing to twist interviews and slant stories to get an angle. Chris and her ex-husband Nate seem to be using the situation to try to use one another. It is not pretty. Ultimately, the sense is of an order having been destroyed. In this small community (where people don’t actually know everyone – but they probably know someone who knows someone who knows someone…) there has been a sense of keeping a lid on things. As bad things have happened in the past – right back to the days of early settlement and mass slaughter, through the graveyard and ghosts, through family violence and animal cruelty, life has only been possible by turning a blind eye. Everyone knows who has done what, but nobody does anything about it.This is a really well told, psychological story. The characters are real, and the location so well drawn that you can almost identify it. The two voices work well, but as we near the end, some of Chris’s first person narrative lacks coherence. Whilst that fits with the context, it does let some of the pressure dissipate. The ending is completely appropriate and very unsatisfying – if that is not a contradiction. Because this is not a typical whodunnit; it is about people, not procedures. ****0
  4. A Loving, Faithful Animal is about the Vietnam war; how it impacted on one family and continues to have a direct impact on that family all these years later. Brothers Jack and Les had different approaches to “winning” the birthday lottery and being conscripted to fight in Vietnam. Jack accepted, went off and came back a very different person. Les lopped off his index fingers so he would fail the medical. Jack has PTSD, Les has marginalised himself from society. Both are drifting rudderless. The novel is divided into six sections, narrated by Jack, his wife Ev, his daughters Ru (twice) and Lani, and Les. Each offers a different, distinctive voice and e very different perspective on Jack and his disappearance to the fleshpots of South Melbourne. We see the incompatibility between a man who has been ruined by war; who is unfit to look after dependents; and a family that depends upon him.With any multiple narration, much hinges on the voices of the narrators. I did not get along with Ru, who narrated in the second person. Second person narration is a difficult thing to sustain without sounding contrived, and I’m not quite sure it quite managed that feat. Given that Ru bookends the novel, holding the first and the last sections, this is a big problem. I enjoyed the other sections very much – particularly Les who was able to show a greater level of detachment from Jack’s situation than those Jack had lived with. Collectively, this feels like six vignettes rather than a single novel. A novel would have a stronger narrative arc; this is more about separate perspectives on the same situation. It is no less worthwhile for that, but it does make this something of an exercise in putting the pieces of the puzzle together to create that single picture. The result for the reader on doing so is a challenging thinkpiece about the morality of the state claiming a stake on the lives of its citizens. Why should the state be able to uproot private citizens and place them at risk of psychological or physical ruin? Why should families today have to pay the price for a government that chose to “steal” a previous generation? And then, there’s the question about whether it is right or sensible to take action to subvert a draft. All the time, posing these questions that were answered in the 1970s through the lens of 2017 values. A Loving, Faithful Animal is not an easy read, but one that is worth the relatively short investment of time needed to do so. ***00
  5. Josephine Wilson

    Extinctions is a bit of a curate’s egg. Parts of it are excellent. Specifically the first bits.Frederick Lothian is a retired academic who is seeing out his remaining years in a retirement village outside Perth, Western Australia. He has known better times; he has lived in Britain and the US; he has been a world authority on engineering; he has a fine collection of collectible furniture stacked up in his retirement village unit. And he hates his existence. He is lonely, bored and confined. He lives in fear of the day he is deemed unfit for independent living and shunted across the lawn to the supported living area. He vaguely knows one of his neighbours and has never spoken to the other. We feel for him, especially when we learn that his wife has died and his daughter lives interstate and travels often overseas.Fairly soon on, though, we start to wonder whether Frederick isn’t the architect of his own misfortune. We start to see that he is vain and judgemental. He has little sensitivity to the impact of his actions on those around him; he has chosen to ignore his neighbour Jan because he believes she is common, and, worst of all, he seems to have abandoned both of his children. This feels well set up for an interesting story.Unfortunately, I’m not sure it completely delivered on this potential. In very broad terms, Frederick is forced to meet Jan, and this triggers something in him that makes him want to reconnect with the world. That’s all well and good, but it didn’t feel authentic. It is difficult to believe that an encounter with a stranger could have caused such a complete alteration of character and behaviour. Moreover, the timeline feels fuzzy and events seem to develop out of sequence. This leads to the whole narrative starting to crumble even as it starts to speed wildly out of control. Meanwhile, the text is interspersed with pictures of bridges, engineering plans and pictures. Presumably this is intended to remind us that we are dealing with a logical man of learning, and one or two of the earlier illustrations augment references in the text. But by the end, it is difficult to see those links. They just serve (somewhat mercifully) to give the reader a free ride for half a page. And when you’re celebrating white space and pages that turn quickly, you know the story is in trouble. **000
  6. Philip Salom

    Melbourne’s rooming houses are a step up from homelessness, but sometimes only just. Big and Little have seen the worst of them: violence, drugs, theft, danger. But their current rooming house in North Melbourne has a better vibe; some of the residents are a bit odd; there’s one who sits in silence in the common room; another who has set himself up as the gatekeeper. And there’s Big, a large transvestite on the cusp of reaching senior years; and his companion Little, a small, mousey woman with lupus. Little has been waiting to inherit her mother’s house in Adelaide for a long time and has dreams of a stable home; Big is not so sure. So they spend all day, every day, wandering the streets and discussing the possibilities, quietly observing the colourful characters all around them.Meanwhile, there’s Angus and Jasmin. Jasmin is an academic and Angus is a garden landscaper who designs fireproof houses. Angus is on a mission to make his life intersect with Little.What unfolds is a really engaging story of life on the margins. Big and Little are not sorry for themselves; they are actually pretty happy within their own world. They don’t aspire to work or extravagance. They don’t want fast cars. But they do crave a little bit of security. They are vulnerable and they know it.The story, in the main, follows twin tracks: the destiny of Little’s inheritance and a threat to the composition of the rooming house. Both these lines cause Big and Little to rise up from their torpor and engage with the wider world. The story is well told and genuinely intriguing. But the real beauty is in seeing these rooming house residents as real people; quirky, marginalised (often for good reason), frustrating and occasionally terrifying. But nevertheless as real people with valid aspirations and as much a right to a stake in society as anyone else. The writing is vivid; the voice is comic. The novel employs a narrator whose eccentricity fully equals the subject matter; he is a very present and judgemental narrator who almost defies the reader to disagree with him. He, as much as Big and Little, is the star of the show.If there is a down side, it is Jasmin. She seems to exist only to add depth to Angus and the sections in which she and Angus are together feel like dead weight. Perhaps we would miss her if she were not there, but it doesn’t make her any more interesting when she is. This is a minor quibble, though, in a book that is otherwise fantastic.Waiting comes highly recommended. *****
  7. Inga Simpson

    Inga Simpson is not an Aboriginal writer, but Where The Trees Went is a novel that engages very much with Aboriginal culture and heritage. This is a risky path to follow; it is easy to draw accusations of cultural appropriation or insensitivity. But it is important that some white Australian writers are willing to take this risk. It is important that white Australian readers be exposed not just to authentic Aboriginal voices telling stories of their own culture, but also get to hear perspectives on how Australians of European or other non-indigenous heritage should relate to the Traditional Owners. Where The Trees Went is a highly readable novel set in two interleaved times and locations. The first narrative features Jay, a tom-boyish girl hanging out with male friends by the river in the Lachlan Valley of small-town New South Wales. Jay’s family live on a huge station and the population is sparse; their part of the river is private property so it is quite conceivable that the collection of carved, dead trees is otherwise unknown. It becomes their personal playground; their gang hut, as it were. But one of the friends, Ian – whose family run the local service station – is Aboriginal and his mother tells them that the trees are a burial memorial and it is no place to be playing. The other narrative has an adult Jayne, an art historian at the national museum in Canberra, plotting to steal an arborglyph – an Aboriginal carved tree. She is horrified at the commodification of Aboriginal culture, the collection of sacred artefacts that simply remain in storage. Jayne is horrified, too, to find herself in a relationship with Sarah, an intelligence officer with (presumably) ASIO, hanging out in trendy cafes and worrying about home furnishings. Perhaps triggered by a bushfire that ravaged the trees around Canberra, Jayne feels the stirring of old memories and the need to make a difference. Both narratives are beautiful. The childhood, told in first person, is immediate and arresting. It is personal and bursting with emotions. It is a story of love and friendship; of childhood innocence in a harsh world where adults can crush dreams. The adult narrative reads at times like a psychological thriller: tense and terse. The third person narration creates a distance between Jayne and the reader. But like the best of the twin-track narratives, the reader is frustrated to move away from a compelling story every time it switches, only to become immediately engrossed in the story that had been on hold. Overall, this is a story of love and friendship, tragedy and loss. There are themes of honour, personal debt and reparation. The novel sets Aboriginal culture firmly in the 20th and 21st Century – not some ancient thing but part of the world we all inhabit and which is relevant to all of us, regardless of our own heritage. It presents questions about how we can share a space; how migrants and their descendants can live with an appreciation of the awesome culture around us, and how we can try to live with the atrocities committed by our (not very distant) ancestors. The answers are very tentative, leaving the reader plenty of space to fill in their own answers. Where The Trees Were is a really superb, measured piece of writing that will leave an impression. *****
  8. Ryan ONeill

    Their Brilliant Careers is a work of absolute genius. Right from the author’s previous publications, through the dedication, contents age, text, acknowledgements and index it never lets up. This is a pastiche of a serious study of influential Australian writers. Ryan O’Neill has creates a seamless world where these fictional writers rub shoulders with one another and with real writers and historical figures. They interact across biographies; some characters are ever-present: the luckless Sydney Steele is a constant fixture; Vivian Darkbloom’s parties are attended by the great and the good; all the writers grew up on a diet of Addison Tiller’s bucolic short stories. Now, I am no expert in Australian literature but I understand that some (all?) of the fictional writers are drawn from real life Australian writers. This may well explain how such a complex world has been able to hang together. But it also makes this a very sharp analysis of a pitifully poor literary tradition. Of the sixteen writers, there is at least one plagiarist, two frauds, two whose works have disappeared, and one who never existed. These top writers include one editor and one biographer; and at least a couple whose output seems to have been minimal in the extreme. Their works are unoriginal and derivative, titles punning on more illustrious works by European writers. At the same time as we are given this bleak analysis of Australian literature, so too we find a bleak analysis of Australian social history. All the writers are very Anglo – one especially so – and women are mostly decorative. There are some fascists and a communist (who embraced fascism when Stalin signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler). It paints a picture of an unimaginative, safe and isolated society – one in which books were banned and genuine innovation spurned. It is a society with a few mediocre people running things for themselves, setting up petty little battles for territory, trying to win a larger share of the minuscule sales of literary magazines and journals, oblivious to a bigger, wider and more successful world beyond. There are Easter Eggs aplenty, whether in the form of titles, anagrams, acrostics or homophones (Donkey Hotel anyone?). Genuinely funny, laugh out loud moments in the middle of a deadpan journalese narrative. I had worried that Their Brilliant Careers might be a one-trick pony. That it might run out of steam quite quickly and be repetitive padding to fill out a novel length book (a feeling I got with Roberto Bolaño’s conceptually similar Nazi Literature in the Americas). I needn’t have worried; the concept got stronger, not weaker, for each additional biography. The characters became fuller and more three dimensional; details in earlier biographies only became truly meaningful when seen through the lens of a later biography. There is a story of sorts that emerges, and it is a pretty captivating one. And given the title and subject matter, it seems appropriate that Their Brilliant Careers has been longlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Prize. *****
  9. Ava Langdon is a writer, elderly, living in a hut in the forests outside Katoomba in the NSW Blue Mountains. We spend a day in Ava’s company – through morning, elevenses, afternoon, evening and night. We meet her in her hut, living an existence that is not much above camping. Her provisions are low; she has makeshift furniture and makeshift cooking equipment. Is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world? Has Ava, alone, managed to carry on the torch of humanity? The answer is no. It is 1974 and Ava seems merely to be eccentric. She is the weird old lady our parents used to warn us about. Today, though, we are going to see the world through Ava’s eyes, watching the small children being safely shepherded away. We are going to delight in her choice of pith helmet and golden cravat; we are going to admire her wit in putting waitresses and policemen in their correct places; we are going to marvel at her dexterity in deadheading agapanthus in the grounds of the Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath. I know the places well, and I remember the 1970s – although I have never seen them combined I can imagine it well. This was a time of greater innocence but, ironically, also greater violence. The health and safety laws had not yet sterilised our world and neutralised the threats. This was an age where people could be assaulted for liking the wrong music, so if you were strange in any way you were not going to meet with tolerance, let alone acceptance. Thus, Ava’s world view showed all the more defiance in the face of strong societal expectations. It would be a shame to spoil the reader’s fun by detailing the many examples of eccentricity and the inappropriateness of her various exchanges and dialogues. Just accept that they are hilarious – and that you’ll be laughing with Ava as much as at her. You will see Ava’s perspective completely, be privy to her inner thoughts, but unlike a classic unreliable narrator you will also fully understand how other people react to her. There is no delusion, no trying to hoodwink the reader. The title tells us that these are the last days of Ava Langdon. We are sad that the world is about to be robbed of one of its more colourful inhabitants; we understand also that for all the nonsense – for all the overblown experts of unpublished novels and doggerel rhyme – that Ava had a story to tell. Every chance encounter was a potential novel, destined to be typed onto pink paper and sent off to an unreceptive publisher. Ava’s life reaches back into a bygone age; it is over; and apart from ten copies of both of her published novels, Ava has precious little to show for it. Her tragi-comic life has not been a success. Ava Langdon is fictionalisation of Eve Langley, a long forgotten writer. I have her magnum opus, The Pea-Pickers, on my shelf unread. This novel will definitely inspire me to read it. *****
  10. Kirsten Tranter

    Hold is a spooky little book. Shelley Muir is putting her life back together after the tragic drowning of her partner Conrad. Shelley has moved away from the coast and is now living with David, an older academic, and his 15 year old daughter. Shelley has a contract to write textbooks, giving her freedom to work from home, popping out to cafes and antique shops as she pleases.But despite appearances, Shelley is not happy. David’s minimalist furnishing has obliterated Shelley completely, she is never going to feel maternal towards Julia and her only friend Tess is a restaurant reviewer providing Shelley with access to free food and dull company.So when Shelley discovers a secret room through a door in the back of her bedroom closet, she is able to create her own personal space, her own refuge from David and his minimalism. But the room is not on the plans, and the space it occupies seems to encroach on the house next door… The more time Shelley spends in the room, the more often she visits it, the stranger her life gets. Hold is essentially a study of grief and not letting things go. It is about the dilemma of being loyal to what you have loved, and being hopeful enough to reach out for new things. It is about the pain when the new things are not that great and you know the ending might not be happy. This is a difficult read, despite its brevity. This is a novel heavy in metaphor, but it remains lucid. One or two of the ideas possibly don't bear very close scrutiny, and one or two bear more than a passing resemblance to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime, but taken together they create an eerie atmosphere that becomes more and more disturbing as the book progresses. The writing, in fact, is beautiful and creates a tiny, claustrophobic world very well. There are repeated images that build in intensity with each telling; each time the images becomes sharper, more detailed. The biggest puzzle, though, is the chicklit cover. This is very much not chicklit and anyone expecting a romcom or sensual steaminess is going to feel mightily short-changed. Hold is about the hold of the past on Shelley. I think too that some of the spookiness may have quite a hold on the reader. ****0
  11. Will Self

    Look, I really did try to like Phone. I loved Umbrella, and Shark was on just the right side of OK. But Phone seems to be the same book told all over again, just without the plot. I gave up at a quarter of the way through.Phone opens with Zack Busner, former psychiatrist, wandering around a hotel in Manchester with his undercarriage out. It seems he has dementia. The narrative – a third person stream of consciousness devoid of paragraphing – slips from the present situation into long (and I mean long) reminiscences/fantasies – never quite sure which. These reminiscences are sordid and salacious – drugs, prostitution, spies hanging around gay bars, unhappy families. They are also hopelessly disjointed, repetitive and don’t go anywhere. This style was exciting in Umbrella where there was a unifying theme – the treatment of encephalitis lethargica. Umbrella had frequent social and cultural references to the 1960s and 1970s; it had wit and it had panache. Shark was a bit more of the same, but lacking a cogent story at its heart. But this, Phone, just has nothing to hold it together or hold the reader’s interest. It doesn’t have witty cultural references, it doesn’t have any obvious political statement to make. It doesn’t even have the novelty of an idiosyncratic narration since it has already been done twice before. Phone is a step too far, still riding on Umbrella’s coat tails. We know Will Self has done highly original stuff – but is he like the Zack Busner of this text – a faded shadow of a once great man? *0000
  12. Gail Honeyman

    It's a personal choice. But if you have a smart phone, you can get a Kindle app and read on that. It was a revelation when I first discovered it. I was with Calliope in Kyoto and we had an hour to pass before we could reasonably look for an evening meal. As we sat on a wall, I said what a pity it was that I had left my Kindle in the hotel. Calliope told me I could get the Kindle app, and since there was free wi-fi everywhere I downloaded it on the spot, uploaded my book and picked up exactly where I had left off. Now I read heaps on my phone - even lighter than a Kindle or a paperback.
  13. Gail Honeyman

    Ah well, the Kindle price is not that bad. Plus - Amazon has the hardback on offer at ten pounds - and there was a time when ten pounds was what you'd pay for the paperback. Book prices have come down so much over the past 20 or more years.
  14. Eleanor Oliphant is 30 years old, lives in Glasgow, works on accounts at a graphic designer, wears the same practical clothes every day, eats the same food and spends her weekend drinking vodka and doing the crosswords. Eleanor has no friends and no social life – beyond her weekly conversation with her mother. It’s existing, but it’s not really living. Initially it has a feel of The Rosie Project. Comedy drawn from the lack of social awareness of someone with an undiagnosed psychological disorder somewhere close to Asperger’s Syndrome. But it soon becomes clear that Eleanor’s problems are borne of childhood trauma rather than underdeveloped emotional awareness. Whilst Eleanor is gauche, she is not completely socially stunted; she has self-awareness and the capacity to learn. And learn she does. This is essentially a Bildungsroman – a coming of age story – but with an abnormally late developer. There is genuine comedy gold in the process – particularly as Eleanor finds reasons to alter her image. At times, in honesty, Eleanor’s apparent ignorance of modern culture and appliances stretches credulity, but it is easy to go along with the conceit for the sake of the humour. Yet at its heart, there are real people like Eleanor. Even in Glasgow, a city with a rough and ready reputation, there are a few delicate flowers who wince at the sound of swearing, who maintain prim and proper manners to the point of prissiness, and profess never to have stepped into a pub. There are people in every city whose lives fall into lonely ruts as a way of avoiding difficult decisions and facing up to the need for personal development. As the novel unfolds, more detail of Eleanor’s past emerges at the same time as she takes more responsibility for facing up to – and improving – her situation. The reader becomes increasingly sympathetic towards her and wills her to beat her demons. This is not a novel that relies on tricks and although there is a twist at the end, it doesn’t define the novel. What really makes the story special is the narrative voice. Eleanor is defiant even at her most desperate. She does not look to others to solve her problems and doesn’t even really want to admit to having problems. Many people are in a worse situation than her, she reasons. Even as she does emerge from her isolation, it is not to address a particular problem; rather it is a strategy to achieve a particular goal. She can be self-depricating, but never whiney. Eleanor Oliphant is a really fantastic book that affirms all that is good about modern Scottish society; it is an optimistic book that will stay with me. *****
  15. George Saunders

    I thought it was a genuine experience. By allowing ghosts to converse, we are admitting to the afterlife in some shape or form - and most ghosts are just temporarily existing between life and death. So I read it as straight that the Reverend had got to judgement and was running away from it - caught in a terrible state because he knew the outcome would be adverse but was inevitable as he had no power to change the life he had led. It also made me, as a reader, wonder what he had done in his life that was so terrible.