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.
Glenn Patterson is one of Northern Ireland's national treasures. His novels over the past thirty years have documented the social history of Belfast, both contemporary and historic, with a great deal of love. Where other writers have focused mainly on the Troubles and the Catholic part of the community, Patterson writes from a Protestant perspective and his novels have kept the Troubles firmly in the background. Serendipitously, his writing has coincided with the Peace Process, allowing him to reflect great social change across his works.
Where We Are Now is about middle age. Herbie is somewhere in mid-life - perhaps in his 50s - living somewhere in East Belfast. He has been laid off from his work as a payroll manager; as his company downsized, so too did the payroll Department. His ex-wife Tanya lives down south with her new partner Martin. He fills his time walking to the Public Records Office in the Titanic Quarter and offering research services to the visitors looking to recreate their family histories. His speciality is the records of public applotments. In between researches he drinks coffee in Sam's cafe and shops in Lidl.
Herbie is lonely. He drifts into other people's conversations, lives on the edge of other people's lives. He used to ave more going on in his life; he remembers former times living in Mount Oriel when he and Tanya socialised a bit, did things. They had an identity. But now, in reduced circumstances, a visit from his daughter Beth forces Herbie to see his life now for what it is.
This is, of course, a metaphor for where Belfast sits now. Trading on a recent history of being edgy, dangerous, Belfast now welcomes cruise ships, ferries its visitors around in tour buses to take selfies in front of murals. The paramilitaries no longer go on military manoeuvres but still stand over local businesses demanding protection money and free pizzas. They are hard men turning to flab. They still blight the lives of the communities they bleed, but they no longer impress anyone.
And as the Troubles fade, Northern Ireland tries to hark back to an even earlier history - the artificial creation that is the Titanic Quarter. Modern buildings set on the derelict land left when the Harland and Wolff shipyard closed, named for its most famous ship. A ship which, of course, sank on its maiden voyage. Meanwhile, in the city centre there is real history that is being renovated to the point of extinction.
Where We Are Now does have the signs of new beginnings. Sam and Derek - a same sex couple - seem to be accepted into the community. There are migrants coming to Belfast - although whether Brexit will let them stay remains to be seen. As the sub-post offices close they make way for new enterprises. The black taxis are making way for Uber. Even Herbie might find a way to reinvent himself.
There is plenty of observational stuff - the small talk of the middle classes; the sparsely attended local football game (I presume Glentoran); the airport and its connections to the disappointing public transport network; the topography of East Belfast (although I could never quite work out where Herbie lived - perhaps Ballyhackamore); the migration of businesses to the petrol station. The characters also feel real, even though most of them wander in and out of the pages without ever setting the story alight. They are bit part players in the bigger story of a city that is having a mid-life crisis.
So this isn't particularly a plot led story; it isn't exciting or shocking. It is more a chapter in Glenn Patterson's life work that suggests a turning point. Let's see where it goes next.
The quirky female narrator in a Northern Ireland novel is not a new thing but it’s often an enjoyable thing.
Big Girl is Majella O’Neill, an underachieving young woman of stout proportions who is squandering her considerable academic potential by working six nights a week in her local chip shop. The small town is Aghybogey, a thinly disguised version of Castlederg in County Tyrone.
So Majella keeps a list of all the things she doesn’t like, including sub-categories. She also keeps a much shorter list of things she does like, many of which are related to food. She uses these lists to narrate the story of a week following the murder of her grandmother. Given that her father has disappeared ten years ago, Uncle Bobby died while priming a bomb 16 years ago, and her mother is a non-functioning alcoholic, this presents Majella with an opportunity to become an adult and master of her own destiny. Or she could just keep working for the Hunters in the fish shop.
In truth, not much happens during the week; and what does happen is glossed over by Majella as she focuses her thoughts on the foibles of the chip shop regulars, hating alcohol (because of what it is doing to her mother and her home life) and looking for bedding. She drinks a bit, has sex a bit, and eats fish suppers. The charm is in her cynical, comical way of looking at the world, mixed with tragedy that she resolutely refuses to take her place in the real world, instead just hiding behind routines and tics.
This is a really good evocation of small town Ulster, told in a local vernacular that will bring a smile to those who know it and frustrate them those who don’t. The self-segregation of the two halves of the community (the Protestants would only dare come to A Salt and Battered in daylight, even though it serves better chips than the Protestant chip shop); the relatives away across the water; the stories of what you did in the war... If there’s something that sets this apart from similar semi-comic Northern Ireland novels it would be the rural setting west of the Bann allowing for ludicrous ideas like the poshy-woshy Omagh accent and thinking of Strabane as urban.
I just wish Michelle Gallen had done something a bit more with Majella. The story is mostly back-story. The story of the dead grandmother, although acting as a McGuffin, never really takes off and I’m not sure there’s any real character development. This means that some of the repetitiveness of Majella’s life does seep into the text. There are only so many ways of ordering a fish supper or having banter with your work colleague as you put the chips in the fryer.
So four stars rather than five.
Oh, and I read an advance copy. I do hope the final version is more consistent in the name of Johann-Pol, or Johann-Paul, or Yawn-Pawl, or Yawn-Paul...