Ben Okri addresses issues of political oppression and the meaning of life in this beautifully written novel.
In a yellow house a young boy named Mirababa is reading an ancient myth to his grandfather. Some time later the grandfather dies and the boy is visited by a group of old bards. The bards lead Mirababa into the forest. He is to be initiated as the new myth-maker.
In another house, a young man named Karnak is with his lover, Amalantis, a fearless woman who quests for the truth. One morning they hear three knocks at the door. When they open the door they see three men. The men take away Amalantis.
In alternating narratives, we follow Mirababa and Karnak’s differing paths. Mirababa experiences a spiritual journey, visiting a mysterious garden and finally becoming a boy-warrior, a semi-divine figure. Karnak suffers much as he tries to find Amalantis. The all-powerful Hierarchy, an omnipotent yet invisible government bureaucracy, ensures his search is frustrated. The Hierarchy has banned books. All the original myths have been rewritten. Even planting seeds, to grow plants and flowers, is forbidden.
Yet there is hope. Flyers are found flapping in the breeze with the slogan “Uprise!” on them. An image of a rose keeps appearing. People are starting to learn that they can be free. The boy-warrior, Mirababa, helps the people learn this.
Ben Okri’s new novel is a political allegory, or as Okri notes in the preface, “a fable of our times”. The novel describes an almost Orwellian world of state oppression, where reality is re-written as propaganda. The central idea of the story is that we are all born into a metaphorical prison. Life is a prison and our very thoughts perpetuate this imprisonment. But there is a way out. We can re-write our story and live a new reality, one of freedom.
While much of The Freedom Artist has a dystopian flavour, its poetic language and evocative imagery save it from being bleak. The book is organised into six parts and has the feel of a long, extended dream sequence. It’s a great pleasure to read. Okri explicitly avoids any didactic message and asks the reader to take their own meaning from the text. This may make the novel appear difficult or opaque, but that’s not the case. Okri’s vision sweeps you along and the big issues it addresses makes it a work of urgent contemplation.
A plaintive, poetic novel that has a soaring message of hope, despite its disturbing narrative.
The Freedom Artist, by Ben Okri. Published by Head of Zeus. RRP: $29.99
Released 29th January 2019
Review by Chris Saliba
David Sedaris’s new collection will thrill fans and non-fans alike.
Open any David Sedaris book and you know what you’re going to get: off beat observations, wacky overheard dialogue, briskly drawn portraits and plenty of Sedaris’s trademark wit. So with a new David Sedaris book, there’s minimal chance of disappointment.
In this new collection of sketches and essays, Sedaris concentrates mostly on his family – especially his sisters, with whom he seems to get along best. His father, now approaching his mid-nineties, also makes plenty of appearances. Deceased family members - his mother, who died thirty years ago, and his youngest sister, Tiffany, who committed suicide - also preoccupy a lot of Sedaris’s writing. Besides the family portraits, there are essays on politics, the mangling of the English language and the favourite expressions of angry car drivers.
Overall, the tone of the book is a kind of meditation on middle age, mixed with a gallows humour on the looming indignities of old age. There’s not a whole lot to look forward to, so you may as well laugh.
I finished Calypso in two days. It was so addictive I couldn’t stop reading. And I laughed out loud several times. Sedaris holds a mirror up to his life, warts and all, and it’s still a cathartic experience to live vicariously through his joys, anxieties and day-to-day struggles.
Calypso, by David Sedaris. Published by Little, Brown. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Normal People explores with superb precision the emotional complexity of an on-again, off-again relationship between two young people.
Irish writer Sally Rooney’s sudden fame seems too good to be true, especially considering she’s only twenty-seven years old. One is almost tempted to ignore all the hoopla. Her second novel, Normal People, has followed on quickly from her debut, Conversations With Friends.
Recently a reading copy of Normal People fell in my lap. Twenty pages in and I thought it was a bit slow. Despite this, I pressed on a bit further and soon found myself hooked. I didn’t want it to end.
The story concerns two university students, Marianne and Connell, and their on-again, off-again relationship. Both are navigating sex, friendships, study, school politics and careers. Marianne is complicated, with a troubled family history; she is perceived by her schoolmates as somewhere between awkward and freakish. She doesn’t know her place in the world, wonders if she’ll ever find it and borders on being masochistic. Connell is more “normal”, but as the novel progresses, we learn he has some serious mental health issues.
The novel is told episodically, with several months elapsing between chapters. Within the chapters the timelines jerk back and forth, detailing previous events then jumping forward. Marianne and Connell split up, start new relationships that fail, try to get back together, repeating this pattern over and over. They love each other, but somehow, due to their damaged natures, can’t maintain a normal relationship.
There are echoes of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in Normal People. Rooney writes in a simple, concise language, exploring the deeper recesses of the psyche with delicacy and a striking clarity. Her ability to capture the things that are left unsaid between people, the strange and indecipherable moods we all experience, is uncanny. Rooney sticks to what she knows – the domestic, university life, friendships – creating fiction that has the ring of truth.
There is a brittleness and sensitivity in Normal People that makes you feel like you are holding in your hands a rare glass or tea cup. You can’t help but care deeply for Rooney’s characters, sympathising with their struggles.
A work of surprising maturity and insight.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Published by Faber. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Chloe Hooper, author of the acclaimed The Tall Man, returns with a fascinating and compelling chronicle of the Black Saturday fires.
Victoria experienced some of its worst bush fires in 2009. The so-called Black Saturday fires in the Latrobe Valley town of Churchill killed 173 people. The conflagration, a court found, was started deliberately by Brendan Sokaluk, a Churchill local.
Chloe Hooper’s chronicle of the fire, the detective work to find the culprit and the ensuing court case reads like a crime thriller. At the centre of the mystery is the child-like Brendan Sokaluk who never admits to intentionally lighting the fire. He maintains that he may have started it, by throwing a cigarette out a window. Sokaluk has very poor cognitive and social skills (although he is a skilled map drawer and has a superb memory for locations). During the trial, he appears totally unaware of what is happening around him, doodling with pen and paper during the proceedings and making childish jokes.
The Latrobe Valley backdrop to this terrible crime – its decomissioned Hazelwood power station, the poverty and lack of opportunity the area provides – makes for a fascination socio-economic portrait. When towns lose their main source of jobs and income, a brooding sense of hopelessness pervades everything, even the environment.
With its mix of detective mystery, social history and environmental science,The Arsonist is a story of Australia today.
Rivetting, fascinating and full of brilliant research.
The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, by Chloe Hooper. Hamish Hamilton $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books