A bizarre love triangle, with a cat as the major pawn.
Shozo is onto his second wife, but his heart really belongs to his cat, the beautiful Lily, with her exquisite tortoiseshell coat. First wife Shinako, who has been pushed out of her marriage in favour of the well-heeled Fukuko, is kicking up a stink. She says she is lonely and wants to take Lily to live with her. Seeing that she has been unfairly abandoned, she feels this is the least that Shozo and Fukuko can do. Shinako's secret plan is that once Lily is ensconced with her, Shozo will want to visit the cat, and hence her. The funny part is, Shinako doesn’t really like the cat, and so the plan is in some ways self-sabotaging. Thrown into this mix of emotional jeopardy is Shozo’s mother, O-rin, who has her own self-interested schemes. Weak and vacillating, Shozo finally succumbs to the pressure to give Lily to Shinako, but soon finds he can’t bear to be parted from his dear cat.
Junichiro Tanizaki published this often hilarious novella in 1936. Not only is it psychologically pitch-perfect in its depiction of a three-way power tussle, with a cat as the trophy, but it also presents a fascinating picture of Japanese society. We learn much about the importance of money and status, how marriages are made and broken, and the superficial nature of many customs. Society makes us put on many masks; Tanizaki takes them off to show our true conniving selves. A Cat, A Man and Two Women is almost a Jane Austen like comedy, where the hypocritical and the venal get their comeuppance.
A sly and piercing comedy that never puts a foot wrong. A rare piece of writing where every page is so good it has to be savored.
A Cat, A Man and Two Women, by Junichiro Tanizaki. Daunt Books. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Yukio Mishima's nihilistic tale of a gang of children and their punishment of an unsuspecting sailor.
Fusako Kuroda is a widowed woman with a 13-year-old son, Noboru. On a ship tour she meets and falls in love with the sailor Ryuji Tsukazaki. Their relationship moves quickly and the two are soon committed to each other. Noboru, Fusako's young boy, looks up to the sailor and is mesmerised by his tales of glory on the seas. It's a mysterious and dangerous world that Ryuji portrays, barely imaginable.
Meanwhile, Noboru has been running with a gang of boys his own age. They are led by “the Chief”, also 13-years old. He is intelligent but nihilistic, obsessed with the idea that life is meaningless and empty. The only way he sees to fill the void is to commit some horrible crime. He leads the group in the killing of a kitten, which he then proceeds to eviscerate, pulling out all the animal's organs. This act is seen as a preparation for worse crimes.
When the Chief learns that Ryuji, the sailor whom the gang has come to idolise as the embodiment of glory, has given up his career at sea to become the domesticated husband of Fusako, he declares that action must be taken. He prepares a sinister thermos of tea and with the assistance of Noboru, the gang lure Ryuji to a dock where something truly horrible is planned.
Yukio Mishima's 1963 novel (translated by John Nathan) is an elegantly written short novel that often shimmers with its luminous and poetic descriptions. Some of the writing is breathtakingly beautiful. The theme of the novel seems to echo the 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb, later used as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope, in which two handsome, educated young men perform a terrible ideological crime. In Mishima's novel, a touch of Lord of the Flies is thrown in, with a gang of children performing the unthinkable. The plot is consummately developed, with an air of tension and unease permeating the text until the reader is shocked by the sudden and horrific denouement.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is dark and disturbing, mixing themes of death, sex, voyeurism and power. A nightmare that lingers uncomfortably on the consciousness.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima. Vintage Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In this Elena Ferrante-like work, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami lays bare women's reproductive and cosmetic options in extraordinary detail.
Breasts and Eggs is Japanese author Mieko Kawakami's first novel to be translated into English. It first appeared as a novella and was later expanded. The book is divided into two parts, with part one the original novella, and the much longer part two the additional material.
The story opens with Natsuko, a novelist suffering writer's block who is receiving a visit from her sister Makiko in her Tokyo apartment. Makiko and her 12-year-old daughter, Midoriko, have come from Osaka, where Natsuko originally grew up. The sisters speak in the local dialect, Osaka-ben, a sassy kind of street talk that dispenses with formalities. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, Kawakami's fast paced conversations read like the sort of thing you'd overhear animated young people speaking.
Makiko and Midoriko – mother and daughter – are experiencing their own personal challenges. Midoriko has gone mute, refusing to speak. We gain insights into her thinking in a series of journal entries. The upshot is she is horrified at the idea of becoming a woman – the bodily changes, the pressure to reproduce - all of it causing revulsion. Meanwhile, Makiko has blithely announced she wants to have breast augmentation. She's casually looking into it and Natsuko is alarmed at all the health risks that go with surgery.
Part two takes place some eight years later. The main themes of part one – the pressure on women to surgically change their bodies, Midoriko's fear at her looming physical maturity – are pretty much dropped. Midoriko now has a boyfriend and Makiko's breast enhancement isn't discussed. Instead, the focus is on Natsuko's body. She wants to have a child and considers using the services of a sperm donor. She doesn't have a partner, nor does she want one, as she finds sex completely unappealing. And so starts a personal journey to find a way to have a baby, without a man being involved.
Breasts and Eggs is fast paced and chatty. Kawakami has a real gift for writing dialogue – often in huge chunks – that is naturalistic and believable. She's clearly a good listener with an ear for verbal ticks and idiosyncrasies. The book's subject matter and style, with its addictive prose, is reminiscent of Elena Ferrante's quartet of Neapolitan novels. Both works investigate in intimate details the lives of women. Kawakami focuses even more strongly on the female body, discussing menstruation and reproduction, among other things, with an unflinching eye.
There are some structural issues with Breasts and Eggs. Part two seems simply bolted onto part one and at 430 pages, the book is long and in parts long-winded. That aside, there is much to enjoy in this surprisingly candid work.
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami. Published by Picador. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A sharply observed satire by young Irish writer Naoise Dolan.
Ava is a 22-year-old Irish foreign worker, teaching English to children in Hong Kong. When she meets Julian, a smart yet obnoxious banker, she moves into his apartment and starts a casual relationship with him. The two often spar on economic and politic issues, Ava playing the deadpan socialist and Julian smug with his capitalist assertions. Ava knows she's somewhat of a hypocrite, living rent free off her banker friend, but she ploughs ahead nonetheless. An emotional spanner is thrown in the works when Ava meets Edith, a young Hong Kong lawyer, and the two start a relationship. Things become increasingly complicated as Ava keeps the true nature of her relationship with Julian secret. When Julian arrives back in Hong Kong after a work jaunt, the manipulative Ava must do some explaining.
Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer and Exciting Times is her debut. Apart from being a compelling portrait of modern day relationships, the novel also provides a razor sharp analysis of money, power and class. Dolan's narrative shimmers brilliantly due to its fierce intelligence, sly humour and ability to illuminate the hidden ways in which power is entrenched. A new voice to watch out for.
Exciting Times, by Naoise Dolan. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. $32.99
A lovesick and desperate young man wanders through the city and meets over 200 people from Melbourne's past.
A young man ponders his future by the Yarra River and decides it's not worth living. Having made the decision to jump in and end it all, he's accosted by Captain Matthew Flinders, the English navigator who was the first to chart much of the coast of Australia. It is the real Flinders, straight out of the history books and now made flesh in contemporary Melbourne. The two strike up a conversation and the young man is suddenly distracted from his immediate woes. They begin to perambulate the city, somewhat like Boswell and Johnson traversed London centuries ago, and make their way through some of Melbourne's smaller lane ways and byways. Each street they enter, the person the street was named after makes an entrance and begins a conversation. Captain Flinders soon falls away, and the young man continues on in a feverish daze through the city's streets, meeting along the way over 200 historical figures - merchants, councilors, publicans, performers, builders, pastoralists and even the odd saint.
The cause of the young man's distress (who narrates the story, although we never learn his name) is Chloe, a barmaid at the Young and Jackson. Having enjoyed a brief, idyllic time together by the beach, he now finds himself estranged from his great love. As he notes of his troubles, “…mine is an extreme case. I measure this whole city by the pain I feel about her – I don’t know if anyone else has ever done such a thing.” Throughout the novel he seeks help for his romantic dilemma from Melbourne's fair and famous, only to receive useless or silly advice.
The young man yearns to find work as a shepherd – surely the simple life will cure his ills – but becomes discombobulated by so many random conversations and finally ends up drunk, staggering into the night. (He meets a succession of publicans who ply him with wine.)
Three Thousand is a self-published novel by writer A.E. Cochrane. A story based on such a conceit shouldn't really work. The whole idea risks getting bogged down in repetitiveness. What holds the book together is the engaging narrator and his lovesick plight, pining for a return to an idyllic past with Chloe the barmaid, a past that may have been experienced more in the imagination than in reality. The book reads like a mix of Voltaire's Candide, with its humorous escapades, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, for its melancholic romanticism (with a hint of the tongue-in-cheek). There's also a touch of Kafka thrown in as the narrator finds himself in a never ending maze, full of bubbleheaded famous people, with seemingly no way out. There is a lot of delightful wit in Cochrane's writing and his prose has an elegant precision, able to capture complex philosophical and religious concepts and render them in simple, often ironic, language.
History buffs will enjoy this clever story about Melbourne's early beginnings; readers of literature will derive much pleasure from the young narrator's personal story of romantic melancholy and bumbling adventure in the city.
Three Thousand, by A.E. Cochrane. Published by Decision Press. $25
Review by Chris Saliba
An ambitious novel about Shakespeare's wife and son from Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell.
William Shakespeare had three children with his wife, Anne (or Agnes, if you go by her father's will) Hathaway. Susanna was born in 1583, followed by the twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Hamnet tragically died at the age of eleven. His cause of death remains unknown. There has been much scholarly speculation about the significance of Shakespeare naming his most famous play Hamlet, as both names were interchangeable in Elizabethan times.
Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell has set herself the ambitious task of trying to recreate Shakespeare's family life and somehow explain his seemingly unorthodox marriage arrangements. The novel has two timelines, moving back and forth between the early 1580s, when Shakespeare was courting Anne Hathaway and 1596, the year Hamnet died. O'Farrell portrays Anne (named Agnes throughout) as a bit of a wild nature woman, making her own medicines and working in her village as a healer of sorts. Shakespeare (he is never named, only referred to as either husband or father) is smitten with the unusual Agnes, someone with an uncanny connection to the natural world.
The couple marry and Agnes soon realises that her husband has a mysterious inner life, a restlessness that seeks the wider world. She urges him to move to London, assuring him that she and the children will follow later. That never happens, although Agnes's husband goes on to have a successful career in the theatre. When tragedy strikes, and Hamnet is seriously ill, the boy's father rushes back from London to see his dying boy.
O'Farrell's novel is primarily about grief and motherhood. Shakespeare appears as a half-formed character, and there is even less of Hamnet. The story centres for the most part around Agnes, her inner life, how she copes with grief and her husband's long stays away from home. For that alone, it makes for an affecting and absorbing novel. The scenes depicting the laying out of Hamnet's body are incredibly moving and the myriad botanical references paint an illuminating picture of Elizabethan rural life, with its mixture of natural science and superstition.
How readers appreciate this novel will depend on how they warm to O'Farrell's depiction of the Shakespeares' married life. William is portrayed as rather callous and inconsiderate of his wife's feelings, someone who puts career ahead of family. Agnes and William seem almost strangers to each other. The historical record shows that Shakespeare spent large parts of the year in London, and the novelist has obviously taken this to mean that as a married couple the Shakespeares weren't close and may indeed have been hostile to each other. Some readers may see this reading of their relationship as lacking in imagination, or too quick to jump to easy assumptions.
An engaging, heartbreaking novel about a mother's loss, but a disappointing portrayal of Shakespeare's marriage.
Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell. Published by Tinder Press. $32.99
Debut novelist Vivian Pham waves her magic wand over the Western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, with stunning results.
Sixteen-year-old Vincent Tran is just out of juvenile detention, having finished a two-year stint. Fit, muscled and tattooed, he exudes a roguish glamour. On his return to Cabramatta, he is pushed by friends along the street in a Woolworths trolley, a king on his royal litter. Everyone stares in wonder: what mayhem will he unleash next? Looking on from her bedroom window is Sonny Vuong. She, too, is mesmerised by Vincent. At last, she thinks, Cabramatta can wake from its long slumber. With Vincent back, the suburb is alive again.
Sonny wonders what the return of Vince will mean for her. The two have a previous history. They are neighbours and played together as children. But the two year stint in detention has meant they have grown somewhat apart. Much has happened in between. Can they now re-discover each other and build a new friendship?
First time author Vivian Pham started writing The Coconut Children as part of a writer's workshop when she was sixteen. The author's youth apart, this is quite an astonishing debut. Set in the southwestern Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, Pham turns struggling suburbia, with its dingy shopping plazas, seedy bottleshops and down-at-heel op-shops into a glittering Emerald City. In one passage she writes that the streets are bathed in the “ceremonial light of summertime.” The residents of Cabramatta may be on struggle street, haunted by the tragic dislocations of a refugee past, but they are also a charmed people, radiating mystery and magic. Pham makes her characters soar above their poor circumstances.
Vivian Pham's style is often hypnotic and spellbinding, using metaphors and imagery of startling originality. Her descriptions are also delightfully trippy, consistently surprising the reader with their spontaneous invention. It's the sort of inspired writing that can't be learnt; one must have a true vision.
If that makes The Coconut Children sound densely poetic and ethereal, it should be noted that there is a strong current of humour that runs through the book. Pham has a keen sense of irony, evident on almost every page. It's actually a very funny book, reminiscent of the sly wit of writers like Carson McCullers and Jean Genet.
An impressive debut and someone to definitely watch in the future.
The Coconut Children, by Vivian Pham. Published by Vintage. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A 1960s classic of British working-class life.
In 1959, a young Nell Dunn moved to the working-class district of Battersea and took a job in a local sweet factory. Although not of the proletariat herself, she soon made friends and became emotionally attached to the area. Her debut collection of short stories, Up The Junction, is a series of sketches of friends, characters and people she knew.
Three women form the book's core – Lily, the narrator, and her friends Rube and Sylvie. They appear in all the stories, giving Up The Junction a sense of cohesion and continuity, somewhere between a short novel and a series of connected vignettes. The stories cover a range of hardscrabble situations: backyard abortions, court appearances for minor crimes, fast young men involved in motorbike accidents, nights out at the pub, prison visits and chancey, usually loveless sex. The girls experience misfortune and come off second best in their sexual encounters, but remain philosophical, enduring dodgy medical procedures and ill treatment from lovers with equanimity and humour.
What makes these stories stand out is the way Dunn captures gritty street dialogue without moralising. Dunn sets down on the page coarse, racist and sexist comments that would otherwise beg for a mitigating commentary, but refuses to judge. She lays her characters starkly before the reader and insists they be taken as they are. We are not to consider ourselves above or below them. They just are.
Up the Junction remains a fascinating document of the times and a piece of exceptionally controlled writing. Dunn stands back coolly and doesn't allow her emotions to get in the way of capturing a true, dignified portrait of a particular milieu she came to know intimately.
Up The Junction, by Nell Dunn. Published by Virago Classics. $21.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An exemplar of the modern short story writes about her troubled mother and complicated relationships with men.
Lorrie Moore is an American novelist and essayist. She is best known for her short stories. Self Help was her first collection, published in 1985.
In the nine stories presented here, Moore addresses personal themes. There are bad relationships, marriages on the rocks and affairs with married men. Several stories deal with the main character's mother, coping with cancer diagnosis and mental illness. It seems pretty clear that Moore must have had a difficult relationship with her mother, as long suffering mothers are returned to again and again. One tongue-in-cheek story, “How to Become a Writer”, is full of sardonic advice on how to succeed in a literary career.
The tone of Lorrie Moore's stories is often witty and droll, with plenty of clever wordplay. They are also ironic and self-conscious, almost self-referential as the text gives itself directions on what to do and think, almost like an emotional laundry list. For example:
Ask Hilda if she will go to lunch with you. Over Reuben sandwiches ask her if she's ever had an affair with a married man. As she attempts, mid bite, to complete the choreography of her chomp, Russian dressing spurts out onto her hand.
Moore's short fictions are modernist in style, fractured and leaning heavily on one perspective, that of the female writer. They jerkily jump back and forth in time (one story paces back, year by year in a descending chronology, producing a wonderfully discombobulating effect), eschewing a linear narrative. These are stories in which you have to trust the direction the writer is taking you in.
Unusual yet entertaining, the short stories of Lorrie Moore offer a unique experience and perspective.
Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore. Published by Faber. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra, tells her story in this beautifully done historical novel.
It's 1840 and Cassandra Austen, sister to the famous Jane, has come to the village of Kintbury on a solemn mission. Her sister's letters, containing much that is private and should remain so, are hidden somewhere in the vicarage. Cassandra has a plan to destroy any “dangerous” correspondence that compromises the reputation of her dear, long departed sister. Many of the letters are to Eliza Fowle, a close friend of Jane's. As Cassandra reads the letters, a whole world comes rushing back, of former loves and personal tragedies, and memories of Jane.
Gill Hornby's Miss Austen (the title refers to Cassandra, not Jane) is a great triumph, painting a vivid portrait of the lives and precarious fortunes of women during the early 19th century. The novel jumps back and forth between 1840 and the period 1795-1817, Jane's great period of literary activity. The core of Miss Austen concentrates on Cassandra's emotional life, her loves, personal losses and troubled pursuit of happiness. Insightful and emotionally satisfying, Gill Hornby's book works brilliantly as a page-turning novel and an eye-opener onto the Regency period, especially its treatment of women.
Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby. Random House. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books