“Passing” was practiced by some light skinned African-Americans during the early part of the twentieth century. It forms the basis of Nella Larsen's classic, Passing.
Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was an American novelist, of mixed race parentage. Her father was Afro-Caribbean and her mother a Danish immigrant. Larsen published two novels during her lifetime, Quicksand(1928) and Passing (1929). A plagiarism controversy in 1930, surrounding one of her short stories, “Sanctuary”, sapped Larsen of all literary creativity. She never published fiction again.
At a Chicago restaurant Irene Redfield runs into an old childhood friend she hasn’t seen in many years, Clare Kendry. Clare is described as stunningly beautiful, almost dangerously so. She has done well for herself, marrying a white man, Jack. There are serious problems for Clare, though, as she hasn’t told her husband – a racist – that she is actually black. If he were to find out, who knows what he would do?
Irene is also married to a white man, a doctor, who knows she is not white, although she will often “pass” for the sake of convenience – at restaurants and the theatre. Irene doesn’t want for material comforts. She has two maids, a nice house and lives elegantly. The revived friendship with Clare, however, is bringing her problems she doesn’t need. Clare keeps popping up, insisting she wants to accompany Irene on trips to Harlem as she misses the people of her own race. Irene sees this as dangerous. What if Clare’s husband, Jack, were to find out?
Clare’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and Irene does all she can to avoid her. Things come to a tragic head, however, at a New York party.
Passing tackles key American questions of race, status and class. Both women wish to be financially secure and respected, and the only true route to achieving such status is by “passing” as white. Yet this carries an enormous psychological toll. Both women suffer great anguish and discomfort. This is highlighted in the scene where Irene meets Clare’s husband, Jack, and must hold her tongue while he spouts all types of racist nonsense. Although we learn one sharp lesson from this, explicitly stated in the text: black people know more about whites than they know about them. They know how ignorant and short sighted whites are, unable to even pick up clues that would alert them to the fact these women are “passing”.
There are a few minor drawbacks with the text. Larsen writes in a stilted and self-conscious prose that can sometimes appear a little dated. Some sections can demand extra attention to figure out what is going on. That said, Passingis undoubtedly an important literary work and cultural document. It reveals the enormous stress and burden that race imposes on African-American citizens and the peril involved in negotiating that dangerous world of prejudice.
Passing, by Nella Larsen. Published by Restless Classics. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Two early novellas capture with clarity the often strange and cruel world of childhood.
Dutch author Gerard Reve (1923-2006) has only recently come to the attention of English readers. His 1947 novel The Evenings was translated to much acclaim in 2016. Now translator Sam Garrett brings two of Reve’s early novellas together in a single volume called Childhood.
In "Werther Nieland", eleven-year-old Elmer describes his neighbourhood world. He invents secret clubs, recruits then drops members, invents rudimentary science projects, helps friends (unsuccessfully) explode homemade bombs and fires malfunctioning guns at defenceless birds. It’s very much a boy’s world, full of cruelty, creativity, spontaneity and ritual. Elmer’s friendships with the boys Dirk, Werther and Maarten are as much about play as they are about competition and exploitation.
The second, shorter novella, "The Fall of the Boslowits", chronicles the cruel fate of the Boslowits family as the Germans occupy Amsterdam during the Second World War. Narrated by teenage family friend Simon, the Boslowits, whom we presume are Jewish, are already in a vulnerable position. The father, Hans, cannot walk and the son, Otto, has an intellectual disability. Slowly but surely the beatings and disappearances start, family assets are stripped, until the full nightmare reaches its ghastly conclusion.
Gerard Reve’s evocative language and extraordinary recall of the stranger details of childhood gives these two novellas a realism that is unerring and unforgettable.
Childhood, by Gerard Reeve. Pushkin Press. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Susan Orlean examines every aspect of the library in this entertaining and humane book.
On April 29, 1986, a terrible fire broke out at the Los Angeles Public Library. It caused great devastation. Some 400,000 books were destroyed; another 700,000 experienced smoke or water damage. It took the fire department seven hours to put out the flames. The rebuilding took years and cost millions of dollars.
Journalist and writer Susan Orlean stumbled across these facts only recently, amazed that the fire wasn’t better known. A reason could be that the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster occurred a few days before the library fire, eclipsing it in newsworthiness.
How did the fire start? To this day it remains a mystery. The prime suspect was an attractive young man, Harry Peak, a fantasist and compulsive liar who dreamed of being an actor. He was seen at the library on the day of the fire, and he even told friends he had lit it, but then chopped and changed his story so much it was impossible to know what to believe. He was imprisoned for three days, but then the charges were dropped as it was felt the case against him wouldn’t stand up in court.
The eccentric Harry Peak is just one character among many in this multi-faceted, kaleidoscope-like book that looks at the history, development and workings of the Los Angeles Library. Orlean also chronicles the broader story of the library, from its early American pioneers (there were many eccentrics and true originals in this class) to today, where the library incorporates the latest in technology and sometimes struggles to remain an institution that is open to all, including the city’s many homeless seeking warmth and comfort.
The Library Book is a deeply satisfying book, explaining in entertaining language every aspect of how a big, modern library works. It’s also a story with heart and soul, the library being a vital and humane place, somewhere to find refuge from a world of ceaseless troubles. It’s also a book that pays due homage to the work of the librarians, those precursors to the Google search engine, ever ready to answer questions.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Atlantic $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
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
David Sornig’s history of West Melbourne’s Dudley Flats provides an absorbing and evocative portrait.
Residents of North and West Melbourne would be well familiar with Dudley Street. The busy roadway passes by the Flagstaff Gardens, the iconic Festival Hall and down into the Docklands area. What is less known is the Depression era shanty town, the Dudley Flats, that was once located at the end of Dudley Street, south of Footscray Road, roughly on the area where the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel and Harbour Town shopping centre now sit.
The Dudley Flats had its heyday, if it could be called that, between the 1920s and 50s. When the land belonged to its indigenous people, a beautiful blue lake occupied a large part of the area. The lake was surrounded by a magenta coloured pigface flower, which grew in wild profusion. But along with European incursions into the land came intense industry, and rendering factories caused the blue lake to be polluted. By the 1920s it was the site of several council and railway tips. It was the tips that formed the backbone of the Dudley Flats economy. Residents foraged in the tips, sold scrap metal and other finds, and built their shacks with reclaimed materials.
The population of the “tin town” at its height was around forty people. It had a notorious reputation. Many of its residents drank, committed petty crime and got involved in fights. Despite this, authorities thought the Dudley Flats were no worse than many of Melbourne’s slums. Authorities who visited saw the makeshift homes were quite well put together and opined that the residents showed considerable resourcefulness.
Novelist and historian David Sornig grew up in Sunshine and well remembers the regular train journey from Footscray to North Melbourne station, a journey that roughly covered the area that once held the Dudley Flats. It’s a stretch of land that has always haunted the author, with its eerie, no man’s land quality.
In Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, Sornig concentrates on three characters who lived in the Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams, a singer and alcoholic, born in Bendigo to Afro-Caribbean parents; Lauder Rogge, a German man who lived on a boat moored on the Yarra; and Jack Peacock, a trader who made a decent living scavenging off the garbage tips. In telling the stories of these three characters, Sornig also tells the strange and wild history of the landmass along Footscray Road, a West Melbourne badlands if ever there was one.
Elsie Williams would walk the streets of North Melbourne, drunk and singing, picking fights, experiencing the racism that went along with the White Australia policy. Lauder Rogge had the misfortune of being German when Australia was frequently at war with that country. He experienced the humiliation of being interned as an enemy alien during the First World War. And finally Jack Peacock, who the authorities spent years trying to remove from Dudley Flats. An outsider, he preferred the lifestyle at the shanty town and never wanted to leave.
David Sornig has written a haunting and humane history of Melbourne’s Depression era, with its focus on the often lawless Dudley Flats, the down and out people who made a life there and the eerie, hostile zone of land that to this day still refuses to be gentrified. Blue Lake employs a novelist’s prose and imagination, bringing to life a seedy part of our city’s history, but done with a great sympathy and sensitivity. A book of superb imagination and scholarship that will transport you to a strange yet familiar land.
Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322743 RRP: $35
Review by Chris Saliba
A little known 1983 Swiss novel about man's brutal relationship to animals makes a welcome return.
Beat Sterchi is a Swiss writer whose only novel, Cow, examines in exhaustive detail the way animals are treated by humans as either amusing sentient beings or merely a commercial product on an abattoir factory line. Originally published in German under the title Blosch (meaning “blush”, as in the colour red), Cow is a work of great originality.
The novel has two narratives which alternate, chapter by chapter. The first chronicles a season at Farmer Knuschel’s dairy farm in the town of Innerwald. A Spanish foreign worker, Ambrosio, turns up as cheap labour and Farmer Knuschel is pleased with his work, but there are xenophobic rumblings in the town and some locals start agitating for the farm hand’s removal.
Another main character in this first narrative is the dairy cow, Blosch. She is described as an empress, the reigning queen of Farmer Knuschel’s stable of dairy cows. She has been producing bull calves for her entire reproductive career, but Farmer Knuschel would like her to produce a female calf.
The scenes in this first narrative have an idyllic, almost dreamlike quality, shot through with gentle satire and irony. They’re almost like something out of a story by Chekov or Gogol, with lush descriptions of rolling hills, green fields and hypnotically mooing cows.
The second narrative takes place seven years later, when Ambrosio is working at a nearby abattoir. The whole tone of these chapters is brutal and frank in describing the work of killing, dismembering and processing animal carcasses. It’s ugly, filthy and dangerous work. Intestines, lungs, hearts and all manner of body parts are pulled out, thrown onto assembly lines, dunked in sterilising baths and readied for sale. Workers, who are poor or foreign, often lose body parts due to the dangerous nature of the work. It’s really a hell on earth.
Into this bloody nightmare walks Blosch. After her majestic appearance in chapter one, it’s a shock to see her terrible fate in chapter two, the alternate abattoir chapter. Sterchi describes her awaiting her fate:
“She was civilised inside and out, horn to udder, even on the abattoir platform she remained submissive and meek.”
In further scenes the horror continues when one of Blosch’s calves is also sent to be slaughtered. As the novel continues, alternating between farm and abattoir, the idyllic is contrasted against the monstrous, even though both worlds are intimately connected.
Beat Sterchi trained as a butcher, and he seems to have had first hand experience of every aspect of how an abattoir is run. The detail is exhaustive - written almost with a poet’s eye for image and metaphor - and not simple shock value alone. The double narrative is well sustained over 400 pages and never gets bogged down, despite the subject matter. The energetic pace, mixed with the wide cast of characters, keeps the reader on their toes. Cow reads like a classic, with its own unique voice, language and themes, all effortlessly woven together.
There are obvious parallels with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the classic expose of Chicago’s meat packing district. Cow exposes the ruthlessness of the capitalist system (the workers are always under pressure to work faster and produce more meat, no matter the dangers) and how foreign workers are exploited for their cheap labour. It also examines the relationship humans have with animals.
“The cow stood and bled, and it was as though she knew the long history of her kind, as if she knew she was one of those mothers cheated of their rich white milk, who had offered their teats for thousands of years, and for thousands of years had been devoured in recompense.”
Cow doesn’t preach a message, although it does hold up a mirror to the human soul. The view is dark and unsettling.
Cow, by Beat Sterchi. Head of Zeus. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A fiendishly funny comedy of clashing personalities and competing interests.
Mitch Bishop is having a bad year. He’s up against it on all fronts. The Water Authority wants him to upgrade the channel on his struggling farm, an exorbitant expense he can ill afford. His conniving, rotten-to-the-core wife, Mandy, is working against his best interests, literally sleeping with the enemy. She’s got the hots for Stacey, an easily corrupted official from the Water Authority, and does some horse trading of her own during their afternoon trysts at the local pub.
When Neralie McIntosh moves back to their small town after a five year stint making money in Sydney, the sparks are set to fly. Neralie was Mitch’s only true love. It was only through a series of unfortunate circumstances that Mitch ended married to the awful Mandy. But Mandy isn’t about to let Mitch and Neralie live happily ever after. Over her dead body. Not that she’s jealous, or wants Mitch for herself. Her interests are purely financial. She wants to reap whatever the farm’s worth and is ready to trade the property’s water rights.
Rosalie Ham’s The Year of the Farmer is a fiendishly funny novel set in a small farming community. It has a wide, fully fleshed cast of characters, all convincingly drawn and true to life. The dialogue is whip smart and sharply observed. Ham really captures the laconic, clipped, no-nonsense language of the Aussie pub, shopping strip and home kitchen, with all its humour and blunt irony. This is an Australia you’ll easily recognise. The plot is a chunky, interlocking affair, dealing with farming politics, pointless bureaucracy, government agency corruption, fast moving town gossip and fractious personal relationships.
At the centre of The Year of the Farmer is Mandy, an astonishingly malevolent force. She’s a bad seed who delights in ruining everyone’s day. She scratches a drawing of a penis and testicles on an enemy’s car, leaves the lights on so her elderly father-in-law will have to get up out of his chair, hopes the children at the local playground will break their necks and generally makes life intolerable. Mandy’s a brilliant comic invention, almost an Australian version of Thackery’s crass Becky Sharp. We know she will eventually have to get her comeuppance, as a small town can’t survive such a poisonous force, oozing bile everywhere.
The dedication at the start of the book is “For the Hams, farmers all”, and every page is full of intricate farm knowledge - of animals, weather, machinery, the land, water, farming science. Rosalie Ham seems to write from personal experience. The style and unflinching humour shows someone determined to lay the truth of farming life bare. She doesn’t eulogise the wonders of living on the land, but sticks to the unglamorous reality of petty fighting, miserable luck and the few yet considerable pleasures that the farming affords.
Tough, complex and funny, a cathartic read that also mesmerises with its skill, intelligence and wit.
The Year of the Farmer, by Rosalie Ham. Picador. RRP: $32.99