Elizabeth Gilbert sets her new novel in New York's theatre world of the 1940s, creating a sparkling, cocktail fizz of a book.
It’s 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has left home after a lacklustre performance at Vassar College to live with her flamboyant Aunt Peg in New York. Peg runs a down-at-heel theatre called the Lily Playhouse, home to some rather cheesy musicals. The theatre's troops – dancers, musicians, writers, actors, theatre managers – live on site, making for a cosy, bohemian ambience.
Vivian throws herself into theatre life and soon makes friends with actress Celia Ray. The two enjoy New York’s night life and have various sexual adventures, not to mention the odd misadventure. When Aunt Peg’s estranged husband turns up on the scene, he comes up with the idea for a show that is eventually called City of Girls. The theatre imports the posh British actress Edna Parker Watson and the show ends up being a hit, lifting the flailing Lily Playhouse out of trouble and putting it on a good financial footing.
Then disaster strikes. Vivian unwittingly becomes involved in a scandal and must get her disapproving brother to bail her out. She experiences shame and humiliation, and is sent packing home.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow-up to The Signature of All Things is a light, frothy affair, almost a feel good story. The bulk of the novel is full of humour, with a well rounded cast: chancers, rogues, bright-young-things, frumpy lesbians and street wise, cocksure young men. Gilbert writes with a joy and elan which is infectious. The theme of the novel is how we deal with shame and the inevitable mistakes we all make. Vivian learns, with the painful passage of time, that everyone of us carries a dark, secret history, and that we must forgive ourselves, grow, and ultimately become better people.
A small caveat: the story is perhaps a bit long, with narrator Vivian speeding through three decades in the last hundred or so pages, giving the novel a bit of a lopsided feel. Otherwise, a highly enjoyable, cocktail fizz of a book that Gilbert fans will lap up.
City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Bloomsbury. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A devastating tragedy about two unlikely people smugglers.
On a whim, two young women make a hastily planned trip to Morocco. Born in Holland, yet of African parentage, Thouraya and Ilham feel perennially dislocated, belonging nowhere. They hire a car, take up with the streetwise Saleh and find themselves visiting a slum. Saleh wants the girls to see the real Morocco. They are taken to a makeshift home and meet a desperately poor family. The mother wants Thouraya and Ilham to smuggle her teenage son, Murat, in the boot of their car to Europe where there is economic opportunity. Saleh assures the girls it will be easy. Murat only has to survive the two hour ferry trip across the Strait of Gibaltar to Spain. The girls reluctantly agree but soon realise it's a terrible decision. They are swiftly plunged into an inescapable nightmare.
Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa has written a taut, elegant thriller that addresses issues of race, identity, refugees, third world poverty and first world entitlement. We want Murat to succeed, to lift his family out of its unrelentingly miserable situation, yet the risks are intolerable. Uncomfortable moral problems are raised in this ultimately tragic story about two accidental people smugglers and their ill-fated human cargo. Harrowing and shocking, The Death of Murat Idrissi will burn in your memory.
The Death of Murat Idrissi, by Tommy Wieringa. Published by Scribe. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Palestinian-American Etaf Rum’s debut novel tackles complex questions of women’s status in traditional Arab culture.
The year is 1990; the place, occupied Palestine. A teenage girl named Isra finds herself being visited by male suitors. Her parents are keen to marry her off, for girls are a burden, almost a curse on an Arab family. Isra finally agrees to marry Adam, who lives with his family in New York. Isra must face a new life, living with Adam's parents, the culturally traditional Fareeda and Khaled.
Her first job, once set up in the dismal basement of her in-laws, is to produce a son. Life becomes increasingly stressful as Isra, to her family’s disapproval and later outright hostility, gives birth to daughter after daughter, four in all. Not only is Isra isolated, forbidden to leave the house alone for fear of what the local Arab community might think, but she is also the victim of domestic violence. What makes the violence even more heinous is the fact that Fareeda and Khaled calmly accept the fact that their son, Adam, beats his wife, all under their own roof. Fareeda even gives Isra make-up lessons on how to cover the purple bruises.
A second timeline jumps ahead eighteen years, to 2018. Isra and Adam, we learn, have died in a car crash. Fareeda and Khaled are now looking after the four daughters, a task they have performed for the last decade. The eldest daughter, Deya, finds herself in the typical predicament of a young Arab woman. The pressure is on her to find a husband, get married and become a submissive wife. Deya resists and rebels against Fareeda's constant interventions, but fears she hasn't the courage to follow her own convictions, defy her grandparents and go to university.
Things reach a climax as the interweaving timelines reveal that Fareeda and Khaled have kept many secrets from Deya and her sisters. When Deya meets Fareeda's only daughter, Sarah, who ran away from home as a teenager, bringing shame upon the family, she learns a shocking truth about her parents’ marriage.
A Woman is No Man is a brave, honest novel that addresses serious issues of domestic violence, the status of women, the difficulties of living between two cultures and the trauma of having to leave your place of birth due to war and military occupation. Etaf Rum has written a compelling narrative, building up a harrowing portrait of a deeply unhappy family that at the same time reveals a rigidly conservative culture that is appalling for women, and not much better for men.
While it would be easy to make this a black and white story of good women and evil men, Etaf Rum takes a nuanced approach, explaining but not condoning the violent trap so many women find themselves in. Even some of the novel's worst characters – Fareeda, whose treatment of Isra is often callous; Adam, who constantly beats his wife – are sympathetically drawn. We are given back stories – often devastating - to help understand their behaviour.
This is a first novel by Etaf Rum, and a few small caveats must be mentioned. The dialogue can be lacklustre and pedestrian, and there are characters that lack definition. Sometimes alternating between the timelines of Isra and Deya, it's easy to forget where you are: both mother and daughter can appear almost identical. But these are small complaints in a novel that is extraordinarily brave in pulling back the veil on the hidden world of domestic violence and misery. Despite occasional clumsiness, A Woman is No Man is constantly absorbing.
An important book that breaks taboos.
A Woman is No Man, by Etaf Rum. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
“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
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
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
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
A buffoonish, pleasure-seeking state bureaucrat tries to suppress nightmare memories from his past.
Ma Daode has recently been appointed director of the China Dream Bureau. The Bureau’s project is one of national rejuvenation, a restatement of Communistic values. Ma decides the best way to do this is by erasing troubling memories of the past. He works on the idea of a ‘neural implant’, a chip that would be implanted in the brain, allowing the subject to live more perfectly the China Dream.
All should be going well for Ma. He has position, authority, wealth and a virtual harem of lovers. If only he weren’t troubled by such terrible memories, horrific images from his past. The worst memories are from the Cultural Revolution. In his youth Ma denounced his parents as “rightists”, joined a political faction and involved himself in killing, betrayal and ritual humiliations. His parents committed suicide and he can never forgive himself.
It is torture for Ma, trying to forget. He tries all sorts of diversions, but nothing works. Eventually he goes to a Qigong healer, Master Wang, who gives him a recipe for a concoction that will hopefully help him forget.
Chinese author Ma Jian, an exiled dissident who now lives in London, found the idea for this novel from President Xi Jinping’s call for a “China Dream of national rejuvenation”, one that would maintain economic success and restore China to its former glory. The novel is part satire and part political allegory, a study of the conflicted nature of the Chinese national psyche: past horrors such as the Cultural Revolution must be expunged from memory, even though they form a vital part of the country’s history.
China Dream is written with concision and clarity, perfectly animating its surreal and absurdist subject matter (full marks to Flora Drew’s superb translation). The character of Ma Daode is described almost as an affable fool. It’s easy to feel some sympathy for this clownish bungler, despite the terrible confessions from his past. Ma Jian’s surreal and ironic novel is reminiscent of Russian greats such as Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Bulgakov. It’s a work that examines the deep contradictions found in any national character that tries to suppress its past and has a universality beyond being a spoof of President Xi Jinping’s state propaganda.
China Dream, by Ma Jian. Published by Chatto and Windus. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba