Kate Grenville has a winning formula and she’s jolly well going to stick with it.
That formula is to set a story around the early years of the penal colony that has now grown into Sydney; to focus on particular early settlers; their journey to the colony; their work in claiming a life for themselves; and the impact that had on the Indigenous population. Kate Grenville does this very well; her writing is evocative; she creates both the place and the atmosphere of the time. She poses the same difficult questions about the human instinct for survival even at the cost of others – whether that is the crime that resulted in transportation; the exploitation of the convicts by the naval officers – using them essentially as slave labour; or the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal people. There is a sense that it might all have turned out differently with more respect; but equally a sense that people did not (and still do not) want to give up their privilege. Plus, there’s the difficult truth that there was a lot achieved in a very short space of time in those early days when human rights, procedural fairness and accountability did not present obstacles. It is unlikely that modern bureaucracies could achieve so much, so quickly.
In a bit of a departure, A Room Made of Leaves names real people: the Macarthurs – wool barons – after whom many Australian things are named. The premise is that Elizabeth Macarthur left a written account of her life which is now being transcribed. In this account, she focuses on her turbulent but middle-class childhood in Devon, her obligation to marry and follow a rather mediocre Naval Ensign after falling pregnant, and her early experiences in New South Wales. She is a diplomat who seeks to achieve by listening, learning and implementing. Her husband John is a hot-headed, impetuous man with a fondness for duelling – a chancer who will wheedle and blackmail his way to success. Elizabeth’s narrative would have us believe that she created a wool empire in spite of her husband; the reality is that it took the mis-matched pair to achieve success. Elizabeth provided the ideas and sourced the knowledge of sheep-husbandry; John obtained the land and made sure the traditional owners were “dealt with”.
We also meet Lieutenant Dawes, thinly disguised as Daniel Rooke in The Lieutenant, who provides some comfort for Elizabeth in the early years of an unhappy marriage. Dawes was interested in Aboriginal languages and culture, as well as learning more about the land and its plant-life. Through Dawes, Elizabeth came to meet some of the Traditional Owners whose land her husband was intent on acquiring. But when Dawes returned to England, Elizabeth lost both her lover and her moral compass. She understood that the Aboriginal people, just like her slave-convicts, were people too. She just chose to push that to the back of her mind as she amassed her fortune.
Like her previous Thornhill series, A Room Made of Leaves is beautifully done, but it is bleak and the message can seem sometimes to take over the story.
As a footnote, A Room Made of Leaves would have been written before the Black Lives Matter movement started to shine a spotlight onto specific historical figures. As a society, we are starting to question the iconic status that many colonialists have enjoyed; to question the legacy of place names and statues. The use of real names in this fiction may cause too much attention to be focused on the names rather than on the real legacy which is one of enduring privilege that was earned only through exploitation and genocide.
Silver is the follow up to Chris Hammer's Scrublands - one of the best books I read last year. Silver takes place not long after the events in Riversend in Scrublands. Martin Scarsden has been holed up in Sydney writing a book about what happened while Mandy has moved to Silver Bay, a town on the NSW coast, where she is about to inherit a house. Martin, book finished, comes to join her, walks into her rental, fnds a freshly stabbed body on the floor and Mandy sitting in shock, hands covered in blood.
Naturally she's the obvious supect, Martin is determined to prove her innosence but it's tricky especially as Martin has history which he hasn't told Mandy about yet.There are parts of the plot which stretch belief, especially why Martin hasn't told Mandy about his past, and this book doesn't have the power and raw energy of Scrublands. That said it's still an excellent read, very fast paced, I read it until 1.30 in the morning and then woke up early so I could finish it, haven't done that with a book for ages, so I have no hesitation in recommending it.
I was sure Mr HG had already done a post on Silver but I've searched and searched and couldn't find it.
I've come to this quite late, but better late than never.
Boy Swallows Universe is a heavily stylised bildungsroman set in Brisbane in the 1980s - by all accounts quite a sketchy place run by sketchy people. Eli Bell, our hero, has a life that is sketchy with the colour turned full on. He lives with his silent brother August in a house that was home made, room by room, with an depressive mother and a heroin dealing stepfather; his absent biological father is an alcoholic; his only friend is an elderly convicted murderer; and he aspires to work for Bich Dang and her drug cartel.
Each chapter is written - and titled - with a sensationalist three word newspaper headline. Each chapter is a mini-story but they come together to form a narrative arc. Mostly this is Eli staying "one step ahead of the shoe-shine; two steps away from the county line" as Simon and Garfunkel put it. The various adventures are lurid, cartoonish. But despite the schlock-horror, there is always the sense that there's a real story at its heart, with likeable boys who are doing whatever it takes to survive in a world that would eat them for breakfast. There are gangsters, jails, social workers, a prosthetic limb factory and a host of other pitfalls just waiting for them, but we know Eli will win the day.
For much of the novel, the reader wonders how on Earth this can be brought to a resolution. The situations get more and more absurd, and it seems to be impossible for all the ends to be tied up. But they do get tied up with a pretty bow at the end.
And it is so very Australian. From the slang to the mannerisms to the locations. It's all about Indooroopilly, Darra and Boggo Road. It's about the stress of trying to seem casual while worrying that everyone else is trying to screw you (Australia is seriously the most uptight place I can think of). And it's about the truly abysmal standard of journalism we have to ensure.
Boy Swallows Universe is a rollercoaster of a novel, but as if by magic, it stays firmly on the tracks.
There Was Still Love is a fantastic novel about a Czech family broken apart by the Second World War and the subsequent division of Europe by the Iron Curtain.
Mostly set in 1980, the novel revolves around two sisters: Mana who lives in Melbourne and Eva who lives in Prague. Mana and her family are able to save up to visit Prague every three or four years, but these visits are frustratingly short and far enough apart that Mana cannot really be part of her sister's world. And Eva has an opportunity to travel to Melbourne with her theatre company, but if she doesn't return her family back home will suffer.
Both families have young children - in Prague there is Ludek, a day-dreamy boy who likes to hang out with the city's statues and listen to legends. In Melbourne, there is Mala Liska - little fox on account of her red hair - who struggles to reconcile her modern Australian life with her Czech heritage.
There are occasional steps back in time - to the Czech uprising in 1968; to WW2 Britain and pre-war Prague. These steps back allow the reader to piece together the nature of the relationships between the two halves of the family and to see how they came to be living on opposite sides of the world. But the final piece of the puzzle only comes into view right at the end in what readers may mistake as an optional Author's note.
This short novel is devastatingly beautiful and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why. I think it has a lot to do with the humanity of the characters - good people who made sacrifices for their loved ones and who deserved more happiness in their lives. Partly it is to do with the ordinary details of lives - the wooden sled, the gherkins, the ocarina in the shape of a little bird. Maybe it was the legends and folk tales. And maybe it was the perfection with which each little bit of the picture came into focus at just the right time. There's nothing dramatic or showy, there's no flowery writing, it is just that the novel is able to capture the heart without the text even being noticed.
In amongst the personal story, there are big themes. There is hope and resignation; the passage of time and the fleetingness of a human life; the relentless erosion of one generation by the next; the gaps that are left by absent family members; migration and belonging and assimilation; homesickness; frustrated ambition... The list goes on.
There Was Still Love is so full and achieves so much in so few words. It is as perfect a novel as you could hope to find.