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
Four siblings describe growing up in Lagos as virtual orphans, left to fend for themselves.
Covering a period of twenty years (1996 – 2015), Nigerian writer Tola Rotimi Abraham’s debut novel, Black Sunday, describes the mixed fortunes of four siblings. There are the twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike, and brothers Peter and Andrew. Each sibling has an alternating chapter in which they chronicle their lives in a Lagos slum.
The book begins when the siblings are all young children. Their mother has lost her government job due to political reasons out of her control, and their father loses all his money in some dodgy business dealing. Both parents run out on their children, leaving them in the care of their grandmother.
What follows is the story of each child growing up in poverty and uncertainty, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. There is no real plot to Black Sunday, it’s more a series of vignettes of Nigerian street life, even a rake’s progress as the children’s lives become more miserable and compromised. That makes Black Sunday sound pretty grim, and it is, but it’s also shot through with plenty of dark humour.
An unvarnished look Lagos’ urban underbelly, featuring a rogues’ gallery of street hustlers, crooked businessmen and hypocritical religious figures. The book paints a particularly disturbing picture of the life of young women – raped, exploited and demeaned, with little to no chance of getting ahead in a world where the cards are stacked against them.
Often uncomfortable, yet necessary reading.
Black Sunday, by Tola Rotimi Abraham. Published by Cannongate. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
William Melvin Kelley (1937-2017), an African-American writer, published his first novel A Different Drummer at the age of twenty-four to great acclaim. Two years later came the short story collection, Dancers on the Shore.
Written in crystal clear prose, these stories cover the complications of family life and examine race relations in America. Each story is simply told and compelling, giving them a classic, universal feel. A young woman falls pregnant and must turn to her family for help; a man contemplates marrying a woman he's not sure he loves; a drunken white man accosts a coloured man and presumes too much; a long forgotten musician experiences a comeback; a young man meets his intellectual hero, only to find disappointment.
Kelley's stories are perfect nuggets of emotional truth, perfectly capturing the human condition: wrong choices, the humiliations of life, awkward family relationships and the many ways that love can go wrong. A highly enjoyable collection that resonates deeply.
Dancers on the Shore, by William Melvin Kelley. Published by Riverrun. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
There are serious growing pains when teenager Ford McCullen feels his life being pulled in many directions at once.
Sixteen-year-old Ford McCullen lives in Coburg with his Mum and grandparents, Noonie and Pop. When his paternal grandmother, Queenie, comes into some money, she gifts him an enrollment at St Anthony’s in posh Toorak. Shuttling between the two suburbs, his violin in tow, Ford cops some flack from his Coburg mates. The violin playing is endured to keep his family happy, but is seen as pretentious by Coburg standards.
Ford is muddling through life, carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Some of his friendships are getting complicated, he longs for a girl named Ellie, his mother has serious mental health issues and his relationship with his father, who left his mother for another man, is strained. He sees his father as remote and disinterested, making Ford wonder where he fits in, if at all.
Tobias McCorkell’s debut novel, Everything in its Right Place, is a funny, heart wrenching and refreshingly frank portrayal of troubled youth. Ford’s story of increasing isolation and disconnection is told in the loutish street talk of boozing and brawling teenage boys, yet is smartly written and organised. A coming of age story that devastates with its sense of grief and loneliness.
Everything in its Right Place, by Tobias McCorkell. Published by Transit Lounge. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books