Geppetto writes his tragic story from the belly of a huge fish.
Geppetto is a simple woodcarver who lives in the small town of Collodi. He decides to carve a puppet, a wooden boy. Having finished his work, Geppetto is satisfied. The puppet is a handsome one, like a real boy. Then soon enough the wooden boy starts to kick his legs. Not only that, he speaks. Pinocchio is a mischievous boy and Geppetto often has to pull him into line. He tells lies and several times runs away. On his last escape, after much searching, Geppetto learns that some men not liking the look of Pinocchio have thrown him into the sea. Distraught, Geppetto wades out into the ocean, only to be swallowed whole by an enormous fish, maybe a shark or a whale, it can't be decided.
Inside the fish, Geppetto discovers the schooner Maria. It's an old, decaying ship, once led by Captain Tugthus. There are crates of candles, dry biscuits and the captain's journal which Geppetto writes in. The swallowed woodcarver spends his day mourning his son and yet hoping for his return. He writes in his journal day after day, re-imagining the past, his dank environment causing him mad hallucinations, the candles running down one by one until there are no more to light the way.
English novelist Edward Carey's The Swallowed Man is highly original and brilliantly imagined. The classic Pinocchio story is re-worked into a dark, brooding, sometimes mad meditation on art, death and parental love. The book's mood is drenched in grotesque intestinal images, of decaying fish, bone and blood. Somewhat like the nautical descriptions of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, only much darker. Like Carey's previous book, Little, based on Madame Tussaud's youth, The Swallowed Man concerns itself with our visceral responses to art, how we create dolls and toys to love, believing them to be almost, if not, human.
An intimate story, seen through a ghoulish lens, about love, loneliness and what we hold dear.
The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey. Published by Gallic Books. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A female robot is recruited to help with a family going through a difficult time
Klara is an artificial friend (AF) that spends her days in a shop window, waiting for someone to buy her. She's a slightly older model, a B2, so she often feels anxious that she will be passed over in favour of the newer B3 models, just being unpacked from their boxes. Klara loves it when she is positioned at the front of the window and can catch the sun's rays, which recharge her batteries and makes her feel wonderful. In fact, she almost worships the Sun, giving him a male gender and an upper case title.
A 13-year-old girl named Josie repeatedly visits the store with her mother and talks to Klara. They are testing the waters to see if Klara would make a good AF. After much deliberation between mother and daughter (Josie's mother is always quite tense, her mind often preoccupied) they decide to take the machine home.
The novel is set in the near future and social divisions have become exacerbated. Josie has been “lifted”, genetically edited for superior intelligence, while her good friend and neigbour, Rick, hasn't. Effectively, they belong to different castes. This causes some fundamental friction within their friendship, and their mothers are at loggerheads on how to manage their aspirations. Added to this list of complications, Josie has some unidentified health problems, potentially life threatening.
Ostensibly this is a science-fiction novel, an exploration of a possible future where AI dominates, yet the character of Klara reads more like a Victorian servant. She is observant, there to meet people's needs and knowing when to hide herself away when delicate social situations require it. Besides her ability as a machine to feel human emotions – anxiety, fear, love – she also experiences naivety, believing in the omnipotent powers of the sun. She prays to “him” and is convinced a pollution sputtering building site contraption is the Sun's implacable enemy.
Kazuo Ishiguru is a supremely skilled storyteller. The novel unfolds with the precision of a Swiss clock, a tantalising suspense built into every page as we slowly learn about Josie's illness, its cause and the mother-daughter tensions that permeate. In many ways, Klara and the Sun is a middle-class drama, soaked in guilt, regret, and failed parental aspirations, observed calmly through the eyes of Klara, the astute yet naïve home help, much loved but ultimately dispensable.
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguru. Published by Faber. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Esteemed Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah shines a light on Germany's violent history in Africa.
German empire building in early 20th century Africa is a subject not commonly addressed in Western literature. In Afterlives, by Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, the ravages of German colonisation are illuminated in violent detail.
The story starts around 1907 and mostly concentrates on the fortunes and misfortunes of a young man named Hamza. Forced to leave his home, he is conscripted into the Schutztruppe Askaris, native African soldiers who fight in the name of the German empire. As the First World War looms, and European powers fight over their African possessions, Hamza experiences the cruelties and racism of the Germans. Exploited and abused by his superiors, one deranged field officers slashes him with a scabbard and he barely survives.
Afterlives is an eye-opener of a novel, giving a detailed account of the brutal conditions of empire, the racism and exploitation. Gurnah writes a neat and compelling narrative, interweaving a complex and broad cast of characters over several decades. The book does get weighed down a bit in the last third, as it describes Hamza's marriage, but speeds up to a dramatic end.
A scrupulous account of the Germans in Africa.
Afterlives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In 1960s rural Victoria a nine-year-old girl goes missing.
It’s 1960, rural Victoria. Eleven-year-old Joy Henderson lives a nightmare existence, trying to avoid her father’s wrath. George Henderson is a pillar of the community, but at home he abuses his wife and children. A religious man and prominent member of his church, he viciously calls his children filthy sinners and enforces the most unforgiving, draconian version of Christianity. George's wife, Gwen, keeps her head down and tries to avoid her husband's terrible rages. Making matters worse, the family own a struggling dairy farm. With no money and ever stringent economies being forced on Gwen, who must put food on the table, life is one of unremitting misery.
Then one day nine-year-old Wendy Boscombe goes missing from a neighbouring property. It's a complete mystery, and locals hope that she's merely wandered off, but there are suspicions it could be a case of abduction or murder. The police come to the Henderson house and do a routine questioning. Everyone's nerves are on edge. George calmly answers questions and then announces he will go and pray with the Boscombe family.
The answer to what actually happened to Wendy Boscombe slowly unfurls over some 470 pages, going through many twists and turns until all is revealed near the book's very last pages. This is a psychological novel par excellence. Every page is filled with foreboding and dread, a feeling that never lets up. The plot is crafted with incredible skill, moving between the 1940s, 1960s and 1980s, slowly revealing its many layers. While the story is complicated and multifaceted, it's written in a lucid style that is totally addictive.
One of the novel's chief qualities is its realism. Apparently based loosely on the author's childhood, the descriptions of life on a farm in the 1940s and 1960s - of the dinginess, poverty, money worries and general meanness of life – have a gritty, true-to-life feeling. The portrait Yeowart paints of the food alone – eel stews, skinned rabbits and headless chooks – is stomach churning.
One could say the main theme of the book is the abuse of children, their helplessness and inability to speak for themselves. Many who have experienced compromised childhoods may find the book a cathartic experience.
A gripping psychological thriller, expertly told, but with a solid base of realism that lifts it above the pack.
The Silent Listener, by Lyn Yeowart. Published by Viking. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Domestic dramas are explored in this fine collection from Penelope Mortimer.
Despite a busy and complex personal life, English writer Penelope Mortimer managed to fit in a career as a journalist and novelist, writing over a dozen books. Saturday Lunch with the Brownings was Mortimer's only book of short stories, published in 1960.
In this collection of 12 stories, Mortimer covers a storm of domestic dramas, mostly involving disgruntled husbands and put-upon, overworked wives. The children of these unions are also fairly disturbed, navigating feelings of guilt and abandonment. It's all quite a mess, reminiscent of Christina's Stead's classic The Man Who Loved Children.
In the title story, we are invited to lunch with the unhappy Browning family, where there is a blow up between step father and daughter; “Little Mrs Perkins” details a stay in a maternity ward, where a woman convalescing with her new born overhears several fraught conversations; a rather creepy father performs a bizarre ritual in “The King of Kissingdom”, one that involves secrets and betrayals; and in the stand-out story, the hilarious “Such a Super Evening”, a dinner party is held for a famous literary couple, the hostess almost having a nervous breakdown trying to keep everyone happy.
While most of the stories in this collection describe the messy, complicated and emotionally fraught circumstances of family life – the meltdowns, the anger and rage – Mortimer keeps things lively with her excellent pacing and gripping portraits. There's also some great doses of humour. In one story obstetricians are described as looking like matinee idols that suddenly struck oil in middle age. Mortimer elsewhere exhibits a quick wit that is exhilarating.
A savagely honest collection told with consummate skill.
Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, by Penelope Mortimer. Daunt Books. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
The bamboozled white residents of a southern town can't figure out why its African-American population is leaving.
It's 1957, deep south America. In a small town the entire African-American population has pulled up stumps and decided to leave. It's a mass exodus. The person who seems to have set these events in motion in a young man named Tucker Caliban. He has until recently worked for the Willson family, the descendants of slave owners. Caliban himself is the descendant of a slave simply named “the African”, a man of mighty strength, once a leader of men, eventually shot dead by white slave traders.
Tucker Caliban asks his employer, David Willson, if he can buy a plot of land, the same land his slave ancestors once worked. He tells David Willson he intends to start farming. But once he owns the land, he shoots his animals, burns the farmhouse and spreads salt over his fields, destroying the soil. He and his wife and child then leave town.
The white people of the town are mystified by these events. What could it mean? Why would the town's Black folk want to leave? Theories are proposed – it's suggested that Tucker Caliban has the rebellious blood of “the African” in him – until eventually the townsfolk grow fed up, disgruntled and even angry.
A Different Drummer was William Melvin Kelley's debut novel, published in 1962. He was only twenty-five at the time. The story, while in large part a satire on white ignorance, traces two interweaving lineages, that of the Willsons and the Calibans. We learn of the horrific circumstances of slave trading and owning, and how attitudes to African-Americans slowly changed over generations. A large part of the narration concentrates on David Willson's shame at his own moral failings, his inability to make sacrifices and take a stand against racism and inequality. Kelley here critiques progressive liberals for not doing enough. By the book's end we see this inability to create a bulwark against a riding tide of racism lead to tragedy – a tragedy white people fail to see, even though they are the cause of it.
Written in crystal clear language, A Different Drummer elucidates how deeply ingrained racism is, so ingrained that even those who are trying to resist it are nonetheless its unconscious proponents. William Melvin Kelley published novels and stories for another decade, moved to Jamaica, and finally returned to the United States to teach. He wrote two unpublished novels in that time. Hopefully one day we'll see them in print.
A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley. Riverrun. $22.99
A burnt out social worker goes on a quest to find peaceful employment.
The 36-year-old unnamed narrator of There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job has quit her social worker job of 14 years and embarked on a new career. Or rather, she's trying to discover if a new career is even a possibility. Her recruiter, Mrs Masakado, is given the task of finding something that is not too demanding, something easy on the nerves.
What follows is essentially a description of five jobs trialled over the period of a year. There is surveillance work done in an office in front of a computer, with hours watching an unsuspecting male subject via hidden camera; next is a job writing advertising copy for a local bus company; then a humorous, off-beat stint writing trivia questions and answers for the back of a popular commercial cracker biscuit; a job putting up local posters, one that involves some petty politics and aggression from a rival organisation; and finally, a dreamy job working in a park doing pretty much nothing, but one that comes with its own strange and mysterious events.
The style of the book is quite bland and flat, yet strangely addictive, with a dry humour shot throughout. Kikuko Tsumura describes the minutiae of everyday life and the small scale politics of human interactions. Through this attention to detail, the narrator even surprises herself at how little she knows of her own world, even her own desires. Studying the man in her surveillance job from the comfort of a desk, she starts to live vicariously through him, developing an appetite for whatever he is eating. When taking the local bus she now writes advertisements for, she starts to study more closely the route, only to discover, quite to her shock, new shops and restaurants she never knew existed.
There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job is unconventional to be sure. There's no real story arc, no major characters on which the action really pivots, just the narrator passing through five jobs. Yet there's something very human and sympathetic about Kikuko Tsumura's writing. Her gentle negotiating of the world of work and the different personalities that we bump up against make for an astute portrait of contemporary life. A clever contrast here is made in the last chapter with one of our original hunter gatherer forbears, the Obayashi hominin, a fossil of which was found at the park the narrator works at. It is discovered that a man has been living wild in the park, living off fruit and nut trees, trying to escape his middle-class life. Can we transition from burn out to the possibility of oneness with nature and the world? seems to be one of the novel's many existential questions.
A mind bending trip through the mind numbing world of modern work.
There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job, by Kikuko Tsumura. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In 1830s Mississippi, two young men find moments of solace with each other as they are kept as slaves on a cotton plantation.
Isaiah and Samuel live in a barn together on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the early 1830s. They are slaves in the American South, around seventeen years of age. Theirs is a life ruled by fear and humiliation. Keep your eyes down and always appear submissive, although that doesn’t always work. Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, and his wife, Ruth, mete out a justice based on their own whims. If a slight or wrongdoing is imagined, then it is as good as having happened. The two youths, however, have each other. In the precarious privacy of the barn, the young men carry out an intimate relationship and are lovers – as far their circumstances will allow.
The plantation owner has plans for Isaiah and Samuel. They are strong, fit young men and he intends to couple them with other slaves. In the economy of the South, slaves are treated like livestock, to be bred and sold. When Isaiah and Samuel don’t produce the required results, questions start to be asked. The others on the plantation know about their unique relationship, but when they are betrayed to Paul, the plantation owner, it sets in train a series of events that lead to tragedy.
The Prophets is the first novel by African-American writer Robert Jones, Jr. It’s an astonishing debut, one that achieves many great things. The story is written in a voice that is both assured and breathtakingly beautiful, a language that is full of sweeping Biblical cadences. The characters are fully drawn and three dimensional, with dialogue that punches through the page to speak with arresting clarity. The effect is to create an atmosphere that feels so real, one that inspires dread, fear, pity and sorrow. Lastly, but perhaps most important of all, The Prophets has a great moral authority. It delves deeply into the psychology of racism, the dark recesses of the human soul that allow people to mistreat others so abominably. Even more, it examines the pitiful moral collapse of the plantation owners and slave guards, how they have sunk so low, and know it, but cannot say it themselves.
One example will suffice. Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, has sired a son named Adam with one of the slave women. The two have similar features, and both know it, but it can’t be spoken of. Paul – a highly religious man – must pretend Adam is just another slave. One night Adam drives Paul out to a tavern, and Paul gets drunk, and he comes close to acknowledging his son. But of course he can’t, and it’s a sign of his depravity that his own flesh and blood he will treat as a piece of cattle.
The Prophets washes over the reader with its heightened poetic language and fully imagined characters, revealing a dark nightmare world without escape. It asks us to look into a mirror of the past, and see if we can see ourselves there.
The Prophets, by Robert Jones, Jr. Published by Riverrun. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s 1979 book of stories Trafalgar offers a quirky new angle on the sci-fi genre.
Trafalgar Medrano is an intergalactic trader. He buys and sells whatever will make him a buck, travelling to exotic and bizarre planets in his “clunker”, a small spaceship that’s seen better days. In the bars and cafes of Rosario, Argentina, Trafalgar relates his adventures to various interlocutors. A favourite café is the Burgundy, where Trafalgar is served by the adept Marcos who has an uncanny skill in anticipating his every need. Chief among them is coffee: Trafalgar downs bitter black coffee by the gallon.
Trafalgar has seen it all in his day. There are planets run by matriarchal hybrid human/robots, societies where the dead keep living, causing all sorts of mischief and far away places that are populated by bizarre dancing troglodytes. Several of the stories feature time travel, with interesting twists. The book ends with the surprise introduction of Trafalgar’s daughter, Eritrea. A surprise, because Trafalgar is a known womaniser. He claims not to even know who Eritrea’s mother is.
As should be fairly clear from the above, Trafalgar is a series of freewheeling space stories linked together by their settings in bar rooms and cafes, and the roguish character of Trafalgar himself. There’s a lot of humour in Angélica Gorodischer’s writing. The dialogue is breezy and good natured, with many incredulous and playful interjections from friends, waiters and family giving the whole affair a realistic, earthy feel. Trafalgar as a character is somewhat reminiscent of Han Solo from the Star Wars series. He likes women to a fault, indulges in drink and cigarettes, drives a clapped out space ship and makes fast friends with all sorts from outer space.
The stories also have the irreverent quality of Kurt Vonnegut, describing topsy-turvy lands, while the Argentinian settings give a feeling of joi de vivre. Not classic sci-fi, but a trippy, hallucinatory side road that is worth the journey.
Trafalgar, by Angelica Gorodischer. Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An ancient peoples on a hidden planet make hair carpets, but no one seems to know why.
On a distant planet, on the outskirts of a galactic empire, a rudimentary civilisation makes intricate, hand woven carpets. The carpets are made out of human hair, the hair of the wives and daughters of the male carpet makers. It takes an entire lifetime to weave a single carpet, which is then given to the Emperor. This seemingly patriarchal society allows the husbands to have multiple wives – a head wife, and a sub wife. Daughters are welcome, but surplus sons are killed.
The distant planet is part of the Gheera province. It is thousands of years old and has been part mothballed, part forgotten by the Empire. The planets which form part of Gheera province no longer have contact with the central powers of the Empire and live in a lot of ignorance. When rumours start to spread that the Emperor has been overthrown, people are executed for uttering such heresy.
When the narrative jumps to an exploratory expedition set up by the new government, it becomes clear that the Emperor has indeed been executed by a group of rebels, who are now in charge. The exploratory spaceship is hovering over the mysterious planet and one of the crew members, Nillian, decides to descend. What he finds there shocks him. An endless stream of hair carpets are being sent to a planet that is hidden within a black hole. But no one knows why.
The Hair-Carpet Weavers is a 1995 science fiction novel by German writer Andreas Eschbach. It reads very much like a cross between Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Stansilav Lem’s Solaris. That is, the novel has Asimov’s muscular plot structure and Lem’s brilliant sense of irony and eerie atmosphere. Together they make for an utterly compelling story. One of the main themes of the book is how our habits, customs and religious beliefs are formed by hopelessly outdated historical forces. We hold prejudices and are willing to fight wars due to millennia old events. Not only that, we haven’t got a chance of breaking out of these patterns of thinking, as we have no idea of their actual starting point. The hair carpet weavers in Eschbach’s novel have created a whole political and religious system around servicing an ancient Emperor’s ridiculous whim.
A mind-blowing space opera powered by a superbly imagined plot.
The Hair-Carpet Weavers, by Andreas Eschbach. Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books