That Devil’s Madness by Dominique Wilson – a timely read

Devil's Madness WilsonWow! What a timely read.

The structure of That Devil’s Madness by Dominique Wilson is almost a double helix, seeming parallel narratives of France and Algeria from the late 19th century onwards, and Australia and Algeria in the 1960s. It follows the fates of four generations of French-Algerian-Australian immigrants and Algerian Berbers, narratives which come together in a thriller-like denouement.

The main point of view character is a novice photo-journalist, Nicolette de Dercou, who as a child immigrated to Australia from Algeria with her mother and grandfather, and who returns there to re-connect with childhood friends and cover the news of the president’s imminent death. Nicolette gets caught up in turbulent events as Berbers fight for liberation from the oppression they have suffered since Algeria’s independence from France after World War Two, a historical struggle illuminated by the other narrative which follows Nicolette’s great-grandfather from France to Algeria and her grandfather from Algeria to Australia.

This story interests me on numerous levels. It illuminates the complexity of post-colonialism and Christian-Muslim relations in North Africa; it gives a historical context for present-day political unrest, dissatisfaction with injustice and the root causes of terrorism; and it acts as a reminder for Australian readers of the tentativeness of our claims to sovereignty over Indigenous lands, and the historical and cultural blindness that attends our attitudes to “boat people”.

The novel also highlights the technical difficulty of wielding two disparate narratives. The risk is that the reader might temporarily lose interest at the point of changeover – not for lack of engagement, but because of their investment with the narrative thread already underway. Wilson manages to hold the reader’s attention in both stories until they come together in a powerful ending: no mean feat!

~

This is my first review for the 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

Author: Dominique Wilson
Title: That Devil’s Madness
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Date: February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-921924-98-9

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Halfway through reading Charlotte Wood’s new novel, The Natural Way of Things, I felt compelled to post about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Reading The Natural Way of Things

Such is the power of this book that after I finished it, immediately I searched for someone to discuss it with. I rang a friend who had been to the book launch on Monday night, hoping she might have read it already. She was only a few chapters in, but she told me a friend of hers, after finishing it, had rolled up in a ball on the floor and wept.

I wanted to weep while reading this book. I felt like there was a lifetime of tears – behind my rage – waiting to be shed. But I didn’t cry and I think I know why.

This brilliant, beautifully written, terrible fable of our times was inspired when Wood heard about a group of girls/women who had been rounded up and drugged, and carted off to a decommissioned prison at Hay in Western New South Wales in the 1960s. Instead of setting her story back then, as Wood told Susan Wyndham in a recent interview, she decided to create a near-future dystopia. To populate her story, Wood drew from every possible sex scandal she had come across in the media, stories of women who had been depicted as in some way having “asked for it”. Among the group of ten women Wood depicts, there are figures of diverse class, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and personalities, many of whom bear similarities to actual historical figures. Some of these become fully realised characters in their own right, given life via exquisite prose.

Two such characters, Verla and Yolanda, are given points of view in the narrative. Verla is the educated former mistress of a politician who denied having “relations” with her; Yolanda is a beauty from a working-class background whose boyfriend dumped her after she was gang raped by a group of footballers. Such is Wood’s mastery of narrative that it took me a while to realise Verla’s story is told in the present tense, Yolanda’s in the past – so seamless are the transitions.

Throughout the story, Wood’s descriptive power is stunning. She describes the violence wielded by the girls’ warden, Boncer, in ironic terms as having the ease and fluidity, if not the beauty, of ballet:

[S]he didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and the leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

A few paragraphs later, she extends the picture created with a vivid, terrible simile:

Turning his brown leather stick in his hands, its hard, lumpy stitched seams like a botched wound. Like a scar that would make worse ones. (25)

One of Wood’s techniques I particularly noted was her use of adjectives to add sound, texture, movement and atmosphere to her descriptions: “skittering footsteps”, “thickening bush”, “busy fingers” and “noisy silence” are a few examples chosen at random; while many others form powerful triplets, such as “slow, long-bodied wasps” and an ice-chest with a “hoary galvanised-metal face”.

Throughout the story Wood shows her mastery of figurative language, often drawing from domestic situations to create beautiful, fresh and deceptively simple images:

A flock of white cockatoos arrived, landing noisily down on the flat, the white line of them billowing and settling like a thrown bedsheet. (199)

A pleat of blue has opened up in the clouds. (249)

With such language, a terrible tale is wrought. The girls in the story suffer, endure, survive, collapse under pressure and revive – or not, each in their own way.

What the story didn’t do was something which from the outset I had unconsciously expected it would: depict from the inside the ultimate psychic degradation of abused women; that is, the learned helplessness and hopelessness of internalised misogyny, the self-hatred and self-abuse that leads to suicidal ideation and self-harm, that makes women believe they deserve whatever bad things happen to them. While girls with such attitudes are portrayed in the story, they remain somewhat at a distance, seen through the eyes of the point-of-view characters. Both Yolanda and Verla are far more empowered. Even the crisis Verla suffers towards the climax of the book isn’t one of self-worth or self-doubt; she and Yolanda are women whose sense of agency and ability to withstand is not seriously threatened – even as their physical survival isn’t assured. For me, there is a third, silent, untold narrative that haunts the book: the woman whose sense of self-worth doesn’t survive.

It’s that narrative, I think, that would have summoned my tears, but perhaps it’s just as well Wood didn’t write it. I might never have stopped crying.

I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.

~

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Natural Order of things
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: October 2015
ISBN: 9781760111236

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

Anchoress CadwalladerIf The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader isn’t already on your radar, it should be.

Told in exquisite prose, it’s ostensibly the story of Sarah, a medieval nun who, at the age of 17, locks herself away from the world in a tomb-like room to pray; but it’s much more than that.

It’s a tale of grief as Sarah comes to terms with the loss of both her mother and sister in childbirth. It’s a narrative of gender politics, as she negotiates her weekly interaction with her father confessor, Ranaulf; fends off the unwanted advances of the local feudal lord, Sir Thomas; and bears witness to the scars inflicted on village women who have little power in a patriarchal, church-dominated world. It’s also a story about art and its possibility of liberation and redemption, whether it’s the art of the illuminated manuscripts that Ranaulf works on, or the art of living, of attuning to the least sensory inputs, the sounds, smells and glimpses of Sarah’s rural medieval world.

This is the standout achievement of this book, for me: the novel, while beginning as a tale of deprivation and renunciation, ends up celebrating the very embodied world Sarah was determined to reject.

…I could no longer resist the demands made by my senses. I’d had no idea that sounds and smells could separate themselves; as if unravelling a piece of cloth, day by day, thread by thread, I began to recognise them. This is mill wheel, this is cartwheels, this is dragging a sack, this is throwing a bucket of water, this is digging, scything, ploughing, and even, sometimes, whispered seed scatter. (120-21)

The Anchoress has already been extensively reviewed for the Australian Women Writers challenge, making it, I’d hazard, one of the challenge’s most popular books so far for 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a front-runner for this year’s Stella Prize.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge 2015. You can find other participants’ reviews via these links:

Author: Robyn Cadwallader
Title: The Anchoress
Publisher: Fourth Estate (an imprint of HarperCollins)
Year: 2015
ISBN: 978 0 7322 9921 7

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Rosie Project SimsionWhat can you say about a book that already has over 8000 reviews on Amazon?

The overview.

Odd-ball genetics professor sets out to find a wife. He has a few stipulations: she must eat meat, must not smoke, must be punctual, and must like more than one flavour of ice cream. Along the way, he finds himself entangled with a late-arriving vegan smoker who is on a quest of her own: to find her genetic father. Much mayhem ensues.

The verdict?

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is fun. It’s quirky. Reading it reminded me of enjoyable hours spent on wet Saturday afternoons as a kid watching Cary Grant in black-and-white re-runs of zany romantic comedies. (I loved Cary Grant.) I smiled, I chuckled, I laughed out loud. My mum loved it, my sister loved it; my partner took the audio book version on long walks and came back with a smile on his face.

And I also felt a little bit uncomfortable.

Simsion has written the character of the narrator, Don Tillman, with compassion, empathy and humour. But for me – and perhaps this is a reflection of the author’s skill – sometimes Tillman’s obsessiveness, gaffes and social ineptitude struck a little too close to home. While his character is never labelled with a clinical diagnosis, there are hints that Tillman’s behaviour would register somewhere along the Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s having been excluded from the DSM 5, the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). On the other hand, there are suggestions, too, that Tillman is simply a flawed human being who has deliberately retreated from the world of social engagement into his “head”, or intellect. Why? It’s a defence mechanism, one which protects him from the tumultuous emotions engendered by such social encounters. In this reading, it’s not a lack of empathy he suffers, but an inability to regulate his emotions: he suffers from emotional overwhelm.

Many introverts, or anyone who has suffered social anxiety, might relate to such uncomfortability. The degree to which we can laugh with such a character, rather than at him, may vary with our ability to laugh at ourselves; this in turn might reflect the degree to which we still suffer the pain of social isolation and exclusion such defence mechanisms can create.

The Rosie Project is a very good book and deserves its many fans. It’ll make a very funny movie. It just may not be for everyone.

~

Author: Graeme Simsion
Title: The Rosie Project
Publisher: Text, Melbourne
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9781922079770

This review forms part of my Aussie Author Challenge 2015.

The Lost Swimmer by Ann Turner: a debut psychological thriller

imageAnn Turner’s debut novel, The Lost Swimmer, is prefaced with a quote from Heraclitus:

Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed. (Heraclitus c. 535-475 BC)

Both the theme of “time” and the image of water pervade the novel.

The first-person narrator, Rebecca Wilding, is a professor of archaeology at the generically-named Coastal University in regional Victoria. She is passionate about ancient artefacts, and the layers of time that make up history. When Rebecca was little, her father drowned at sea, and she has since been wary of water. Despite this, she and her husband Stephen, another academic, have chosen to live close to an ocean beach. Together they travel to Greece and, from there, to Italy, soaking up the past, travelling by boat and holidaying by the sea.

With a first-person narrative, if you’re a thriller reader, you’re primed to suspect an unreliable narrator. Turner does a good job of laying seeds of doubt as we follow Rebecca’s story as she faces more than one mystery that threatens her happiness. These include financial problems that beset her in her role as a less-than-conscientious Head of her department; as well her suspicions about her one-time friend, Priscilla, the attractive Dean, who may or may not be deliberately undermining Rebecca’s job – or, worse, be after her husband. Then there are a plethora of secondary characters whose allegiance to Rebecca may be self-serving, who help and/or hinder her as she attempts to save her family from calamity and discover the truth. And there’s Stephen, the seemingly ideal husband and loving father, who appears to be keeping secrets.

The Lost Swimmer is billed as a “stunning literary thriller” on the front of my review copy. It made me wonder what the publicists think constitutes “literary”. Certainly there are eloquent descriptions and the story is intelligent in its approach, but there is very little in the way of figurative language; the narrative is straightforward linear realism; and there doesn’t appear to me to be layers of ideological or philosophical complexity.

Maybe I’m missing something?

The Lost Swimmer offers a good, solid story and it’s a fine achievement for a debut author who is also, according to the information from the publisher, “an award-winning screenwriter and director”. I can see it as a film.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2015 Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied by the publisher.

The Lost Swimmer
Ann Turner
Simon & Schuster: Cammeray, NSW, 2015
ISBN:9781925030860

Entitlement by Jessica White

Their daughter, when she stepped onto the platform, looked to Leonora as hard and weary as a soldier. There were blue circles beneath her eyes and she was scrawny, her hair dull. Leonora embraced her. The girl’s body was like steel, but her mother didn’t care. It was Cate, and she was home. (p 2)

So Jessica White introduces the main character of Entitlement, Cate McConville, a thirty-year-old doctor who returns from her practice in Sydney to the small Queensland town of Tumbin, to face her ageing parents’ desire to sell the family farm.

It is eight years since Cate’s brother, and Leonora and Blake’s son, Eliot, went missing. As well as burying herself in work to the point of malnutrition, Cate has spent every spare moment searching for her beloved brother. She blames herself for her brother’s disappearance, for the choices she made and the company she kept; and she blames her parents, for encouraging Eliot to stay on and work the farm instead of following his passion for music; but she never gives up hope that one day she will find him: one day, he will come “home”. With this hope still alive, Cate doesn’t want to sell the farm, and, having made her and Eliot partners in the venture, her parents need her signature. Her unwillingness drags up old family tensions that come to a head as secrets about the past are revealed.

Entitlement is a moving story about grief and loss. It deals with these themes on more than one level.

Alongside the story of the McConvilles is that of Mellor and his extended, Aboriginal family who have kept almost continuous ties to their ancestral land, the land now “owned” by the McConvilles and other white families who have bought or inherited it. It’s a complex and challenging endeavour to write from the point of view of an indigenous character when you’re white, and Sue from WhisperingGums discussed this very point in her review of Entitlement published last month. Like Sue, I think White handles this sensitively.

image

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This review forms part of my contribution to both the Australian Women Writers 2015 Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. I own a copy of the book which I won in an AWW competition and received from the author.

Jessica White
Entitlement
Melbourne: Viking, 2012
ISBN: 9780670075935

Aussie Author Challenge 2015: a belated sign-up post

 

Aussie-Author-Challenge-2015-300x264Once again, I’ve signed up for the Aussie Author Challenge hosted by Jo at Booklover Book Reviews. I’m aiming for the Wallaroo level:

WALLAROO
– Read and review 6 titles written by Australian authors, of which at least 2 of those authors are female, at least 2 of those authors are male, and at least 2 of those authors are new to you;
– Fiction or non-fiction, at least 2 genres.

As I’m a little(!) late with my sign-up post, I’ve already reviewed several books for the challenge:

  • The Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett: review
  • Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp: review (new to me)
  • The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: review
  • Watching You by Michael Robotham: review
  • Entitlement by Jessica White: forthcoming (new to me)

To reach the target of Wallaroo I need to read at least one other Aussie male author (and I’m guessing Damon Young’s picture book for children, My Nanna is a Ninja, probably doesn’t qualify). I know I’ll pass the target for female authors, as I’ve just finished Ann Turner’s debut psychological thriller, The Lost Swimmer, and I have Honey Brown’s new novel, Six Degrees, on my To Be Read pile, so I may end up qualifying for the Kangaroo level. To do that, I’d have to come up with three more male Aussie writers.

What recent books by Australian male authors would you recommend and why?

Watching You by Michael Robotham

robotham watching youBefore picking up a copy of Watching You with a stack of other books at the library before Christmas, the only story I’d read by Michael Robotham was Bombproof. I remember having enjoyed Bombproof as a fast-paced, witty thriller, and I have intended to read more of Robotham’s work ever since.

It’s a measure of Robotham’s skill as a storyteller that I didn’t immediately pick this story as part of a series. As it turns out it’s Book 7 in the Joe O’Loughlin series. Joe is a clinical psychologist who has a history and faces health challenges, but the story doesn’t really belong to him. It belongs to one of his patients, Marnie, a woman with a traumatic childhood and a missing husband.

Marnie’s husband Daniel wasn’t the best of husbands. An Aussie journalist living in London and a victim of newspaper downsizing, he took up gambling and disappeared leaving a trail of debts. Nevertheless, Marnie refuses to believe he abandoned her. With no joy from the police investigation and growing evidence Daniel was hiding something from her, now she is being hounded by his creditors. Unable to access his bank accounts or life insurance money, she is forced into desperate acts to pay his debts and keep from being evicted from their home. She is also desperate for help for their sick child, four-year-old Elijah.

Marnie’s behaviour doesn’t impress Zoe, her teenaged daughter from her first marriage. Troubled and resentful of her mum, Zoe misses her step-dad; she can’t understand why their TV has been hocked, and why her mother is suddenly dressing up at night and being met by a chauffeur who takes her out. Zoe seeks solace online and, unknown to her mother, sets up  a Facebook page dedicated to trying to find her missing father. That isn’t the only thing she hides from Marnie.

To the world, Marnie is the epitome of the battler struggling against immense odds. To cope, she seeks help from her clinical psychologist, Joe O’Loughlin, but she isn’t entirely truthful to Joe. She doesn’t tell him, for example, that she has had mental health problems before. Nor does she mention that people who cross her have a habit of ended up being harmed. She does hint, however, that she has a feeling she is being watched.

Watching You is an interesting page-turner from a series which features some apparently already well-loved characters. It also reads well as a stand-alone novel. There were times when I felt I was reading more to assess Robotham’s skill as a storyteller, rather than being engaged in the story, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I’m looking forward to reading Robotham’s latest novel, Life or Death, which I’ve heard great things about.

~

So that I don’t entirely lose my focus on supporting books by Australian women this year, I’d like, when I can, to recommend books by Australian women similar to the ones I’m reviewing. My pick of a match for Michael Robotham – based on a very small sample of his work – is Jaye Ford. Ford writes fast-paced action thrillers with a psychological edge. But maybe readers who are more familiar with his work will other ideas?

~

Author: Michael Robotham
Title: Watching You
Publisher: Sphere/Hachette
Year: 2013

I borrowed a copy from the library.

 

This review is the second book I’ll count towards the 2015 Aussie Author challenge.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty’s Husbands Secret MoriartyThe Husband’s Secret is a page-turner featuring believable characters, interesting moral issues and more. I read it over the Australia Day weekend and the timing seemed fitting somehow. It could easily be subtitled, ‘A portrait of suburban Australian lives’.

The characters in this novel are ordinary, everyday people who inhabit Sydney’s north shore. They’re people like me, or my sisters, my friends, our mothers and daughters. Catholic-raised, but not observant; juggling haphazard careers and family responsibilities; coping with the ups and downs of problematic marriages, teenaged children, competitiveness, grandchildren, imperfect husbands, as well as past traumas that rise up in the present with unexpected and unpredictable consequences.

There’s Cecilia, the wife of the husband with a secret. She’s a perfectionist, a candidate for a diagnosis of OCD; impossibly organised, generous and thoughtful; quite possibly unbearable as a friend or family member, but also vulnerable and a loving mother.

There’s Rachel, an administrator at Cecilia’s son’s primary school; an aging grandmother who has never quite got over the death of her teenaged daughter, and finds it hard to show love to her adult son.

Then there’s Tess who, until a week ago, would have described her marriage as happy…

These characters’ lives intersect in a narrative that made me both laugh and cry as I identified with the experiences, thoughts, failings, fantasies and bad behaviour of normal human beings under pressure.

Books like this show me how ordinary lives can be extraordinary and interesting. Moriarty seems to write easy-to-read prose effortlessly, adding a degree of emotional truth that surprises me for popular fiction. No wonder she was recently voted Australia’s second-most popular author in a recent online bookshop poll.

~
This review forms part of my contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author challenge.

Author: Liane Moriarty
Title: The Husband’s Secret
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 2013
ISBN: 978140591665

I borrowed a copy from a friend.

Claiming Noah: debut psychological suspense by Amanda Ortlepp

Catriona and James are desperate for children, so embark on an IVF program. Four embryos are created, and by the third treatment Catriona is pregnant. They decide to adopt out the fourth embryo anonymously. (from publisher’s blurb)

Claiming Noah by Amanda OrtleppI must admit, when a copy of Amanda Ortlepp’s debut novel, Claiming Noah, arrived in the post, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. My reluctance wasn’t due to the subject matter. I devoured both of Dawn Barker’s books, Fractured and Let Her Go, which deal with similar difficult subjects, including post-natal psychosis and issues relating to a child’s true (or legal) parentage. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to traverse similar territory in another novel.

Nevertheless, amid all the excitement of releasing my own debut novel this week,* I persisted, and I’m happy to report Claiming Noah is worth the read.

In Claiming Noah, Ortlepp creates a very Solomon-esque story in a contemporary setting, and teases it out to a tense and satisfying conclusion. Her point-of-view characters are Catriona, the donor mum, and Diana, who adopts Catriona’s embryo; both are sympathetic characters who go through a very rough time and deserve better. They have problems with husbands, newborns and adjusting to dramatic changes in their life circumstances; both suffer tragedy and deception which cause them heartache and take them to the brink.

At times when reading I found myself pulled out of the story thinking, She wouldn’t do that. Why doesn’t she…? But it’s a credit to Ortlepp that she is able to bring her characters to life so well that I began think I knew them!

Claiming Noah is billed as a thriller, but I think it’s more mainstream than that: I wouldn’t put the “thrills” at much more than you’d find in suspense (which is fine by me). There’s nothing externally life-threatening in this story; the life challenges, when they come, stem from the characters’ inner worlds, and the impact of external events on their psychological and mental health, which is only ever really severely tested for Catriona.

I read the novel over a few days and it kept me engaged – rather than “hooked” – for that time. (Considering I also had a lot going on with my own release, that’s no mean feat.) The moral dilemmas the novel presents are interesting, even if the references to the Catholic church’s influence seem a little dated. The ethical issues the story raises deserve to be explored. And what better way to explore them than in entertaining fiction?

Fans of Dawn Barker’s work won’t be disappointed.

~

Author: Amanda Ortlepp
Title: Claiming Noah
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: March 2015
ISBN: 9781925030600

A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

This review forms part of my contribution to both the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge 2015.

 

* You can read about my debut romance, Snowy River Man, and enter a giveaway to win an ebook copy here.

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