Archive for May, 2014

Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas

May 26, 2014

Purchase at The Book Depository

Purchased at The Book Depository

The defining moment in Danny Kelly’s life comes on his very first day at Cunt’s College in Melbourne. No, that is not the real name of the prep school, but it is what Danny calls it. He comes from working class, immigrant stock (his hair-stylist mother is Greek, his truck-driving dad has an Irish mother and Scottish father) and it is only because of his swimming ability that he has won a scholarship to the upper-class school.

The rich boys at his first swimming practice have been mocking Danny’s “loose synthetic bathers”:

They were all wearing shiny new Speedos, the brand name marked in yellow across their arses. Danny’s swimmers were from Forges — there was no way his mum was going to spend half a day’s pay on a piece of lycra. And good on her. Good on her, but he still felt like shit.

The Coach keeps Danny back after that first day of practice:

‘Why do you take their shit?’

You could hear his accent in the way he pronounced the word, ‘chit’.

Danny shrugged. ‘Dunno’.

‘Son, always answer back when you receive an insult. Do it straight away. Even if there’s a chance there was nothing behind it, take back control, answer them back. An insult is an attack. You must counter it. You understand?’

It is February, 1994 when Danny gets that advice and he will live by it for the rest of his life. The Coach has seen him swim before (that’s how Danny came by the scholarship) and knows he is a rare talent. It won’t take long before Danny ranks at the top of the Cunts College team — and even the rich boys have to grant the “Barracuda” their respect. And the Coach has never trained an Olympic swimmer.

Danny soon has a life goal. After he wins the Australian championship, he’ll move on to the Pan-Pacific and then the Commonwealth Games. And he will win gold for Australia at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. It gives nothing away to say that one of the lessons of Barracuda is that dreams are easy to create and can just as easily be shattered.

That summarizes one of the two narrative threads in Barracuda. We know from the start of the novel when author Tsiolkas introduces the second thread that that dream has not come to pass.

In this thread (set some time after 2000) we meet Danny in Glasgow, searching for a scarf that he wants to take to his great-aunt Rosemary whom he is about to visit in Edinburgh. We also learn quickly that Danny is gay, but his relationship with his partner, Clyde, is somewhat rocky. And the main reason it is rocky is that Danny is homesick for Australia.

Homesickness, I am discovering, is not a matter of climate or landscape; it does not descend on you from unfamiliar architecture. Homesickness hits hardest in the middle of a crowd in a large, alien city. Oh, how I miss the Australian face.

Barracuda is a longish novel (513 pages in my version, although the type is a decent size, the spacing generous and the narrative quickly paced) but that summary of the two threads pretty much defines the book — it is a story of the trials and tribulations that happen on the road from A at the prep school to B, the young adult Danny in Glasgow, desperate to get back to Australia.

Tsiolkas attracted a lot of attention with his last novel, The Slap, (shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and IMPAC, winner of the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Booker) and for good reason. Another longish book, it took an apparently mundane backyard barbeque incident (the “slap” of the title) and turned it into several hundred pages of consequences that took us inside Australian society today. (It has also been turned into an excellent television mini-series that is worth hunting down if you aren’t up to reading the book.)

Barracuda is at its best when Tsiolkas is exploring those themes. Those of us who live in the Old Dominions are well aware of the stories of second-generation immigrants like Danny — he may have Greek, Irish and Scot’s blood in his veins, but he is a living example of the “new” Australia. The cold shoulders he experiences at school and later are familiar territory as Australia (and Canada for that matter) moves into the 21st century and Barracuda features a wealth of sub-plots and characters which develop that part of the story.

While I loved that aspect of the book, I have to confess that the two principle themes wore thin before I reached the halfway point. Danny is not an uninteresting character, but he is not a particularly deep one — and the “chip-on-his-shoulder” device becomes entirely too familiar long before the end of the novel is in sight. As well, the present tense thread of the story lacks the depth and appeal of Danny’s student days — two-thread novels require the author to keep both of them equally interesting, I’m afraid, and Tsiolkas did not do that in this book.

Despite those quibbles, Barracuda is a worthwhile read. The author has an eye for cinematic qualities (I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one show up as a tv mini-series as well) and his understanding of the challenges of multi-cultural Australia adds a layer of depth to the novel, just as it did in The Slap. I don’t think this one will do nearly as well in the prize wars as The Slap did but you can’t hit for six with every ball (that was my Canadian attempt at a cricket reference).

2014 kimbofoI have had Barracuda on hand for some months, but saved reading it so I could include it in Kimbofo’s Australia and New Zealand Literature Month project. If you click here it will take you to her site and a host of links to reviews of fiction from the Antipodes (25 at last count) and numerous sites with even more Aussie and Kiwi titles. It is a great project to acquaint those of us in the rest of the world with the excellent writing that is going on there — and Tsiolkas is a worthy example. While the month is coming to a close, I still intend to get to a New Zealand example, Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon, so stay tuned.

Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger

May 20, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

It is safe to say that Kate Pullinger’s last novel, The Mistress of Nothing, took me by surprise. As a read, the book (her sixth novel but the first that I had read) seemed a conventional society-based historical novel, a cultural conflict, travel story narrated by Lady Duff Gordon’s maid who has accompanied her to Egypt where the aristocrat is seeking relief from consumption.

Enjoyable, but hardly challenging, the surprise was that it won Canada’s 2009 Governor-General’s award for fiction and was long-listed for that year’s Giller Prize — a sign that two juries saw significant literary value in a book that I would have (and did) characterize as escapist fiction. While she was born and raised in Canada, Pullinger has been based in the U.K. for some time and the novel had no Canadian content, so recognition from Canadian juries was just as surprising on that front.

All of this sparked curiosity on my part when I read descriptions of her new work, Landing Gear. The author says she was inspired by a 2001 story in The Guardian concerning a Pakistani who had stowed away in the landing gear of a British-bound jet and somehow survived the fall when the airplane approached Heathrow. The promotional stories promised that the author uses this as the framework for the exploration of tensions in a modern English family. For this potential reader, at least, that seemed a long way from Lady Duff Gordon heading to Egypt when it is still part of the Ottoman Empire.

A brief prologue alerts the reader that the novel will involve the story of Yacub, the stowaway, and the fact that he “arrives” in England by crashing on the roof of Harriet’s car just as she is approaching it with her cartload of groceries. She decides to take him home. The prologue also alerts readers to a device that Pullinger will occasionally return to throughout the story — it recounts the event in snippets of less than a page, each told from a different point of view.

The fictional version of Yacub’s fall takes place in 2012, but when the novel proper gets into motion, Pullinger moves back to 2010 to introduce Harriet and her family — Landing Gear is more than anything else their story. I was willing to give the author licence to use the highly-unlikely fall as her centrepiece; she gained credibility immediately when she used another “aeronautical event”, the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano which shut down European air travel for days, as the device to introduce her characters.

It was the day after the volcano erupted that Harriet noticed the sky. Extraordinary.

The day before, she’d been too caught up with the chaos in the radio newsroom [where she works as a presenter] as the airports had closed, one by one, north to south, like roman blinds being pulled down over the entire country: Glasgow — Edinburgh — Manchester — Birmingham — Heathrow — Gatwick. In order to read the news properly, she’d had to learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, along with a host of other Icelandic names. News bulletins had been bumped up from once an hour, to twice, to every fifteen minutes. She’d stayed late and left in a car her boss, Steve, ordered, the underground having long since stopped for the night. Once home, she found her son, Jack, asleep on the sofa, clutching his gaming handset, surrounded by pizza crusts, sticky glasses and other debris.

(Full disclosure: Pullinger may have had an advantage with this reader when she used that volcanic eruption and resulting flight shutdown to frame her story. Mrs. KfC was on a trekking vacation to Spain when that Iceland volcano erupted — both her trip there and scheduled return home were disrupted by the highly unusual shutdown of virtually all European air space so I have some personal experience with the uncertainty that it created.)

Harriet’s husband Michael (a boring actuary) is in New York on business when flights back home are halted. He chooses to head to Toronto to stay with an old flame to await the resumption of air travel — it is a decision that will lead to an event that disrupts the entire family balance for much longer than the air travel shutdown.

And then there is 14-year-old son Jack:

Jack had lived through what felt like millions of school holidays, with their distinct combination of freedom and boredom, like a weekend that never ends, a whole string of exciting Saturdays that turn into dismal Sundays. The Easter holiday was always very long — sixteen days this year, Jack had counted — and his family hadn’t gone away. Sometimes they did go away, Jack and his parents, city breaks in posh hotels with swimming pools. Why did his parents think that all he needed was a swimming pool to compensate for being dragged around endless churches, museums and art galleries? But this year Jack’s dad was in New York on business and Harriet was busy at the radio station.

Jack will be using this freedom to head to the Dukes Meadows for a party, a sort-of outdoor rave. It will prove to have two features: the silent sky (the family lives in Richmond on the Heathrow landing path where the noise of overhead planes is normally a constant feature) and the drug-related death of well-known local lad, a death in which Jack has a minor part.

And finally the author introduces Emily who “buried her father the day the planes stopped flying”. In her own way, Emily is also part of the family. As part of a personal search, she has been stalking Harriet — as a project, the stalking has also involved preparing a video documentary. Indeed, Harriet has been surreptitiously filming Harriet in the supermarket parking lot when she sees Harriet look up and directs her camera into the sky — she captures Yacub’s fall, his non-fatal landing and Harriet’s response.

Those excerpts and descriptions should be warning enough that Pullinger continues to demand licence from her readers as the novel progresses. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that she rewards this with some highly perceptive observations on what is involved in modern family life, whether or not the planes are flying.

For the most part, I would say that Pullinger succeeds in this project — the novel is both entertaining and engaging and there are a number of chuckle-inducing comic set pieces. I am not certain just how memorable it will turn out to be, but during the reading I was more than willing to go along with the author.

I’ll conclude by noting that there is an aspect to Landing Gear in which I did not take part. Pullinger is Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University and has expanded this creative project to include that latter discipline:

The digital world gives authors and publishers completely new opportunities for experimentation.

With Landing Gear, Random House created an API (application programming interface) that allows programmers to get content in multiple ways. An excerpt-length section of Landing Gear is stored in a content management system and tagged to define characters, locations, events and times. Programmers can access this data and build new products with it.

To get access to the Landing Gear API or see some of the resulting projects, please visit
http://www.randomhouse.ca/LandingGearAPI

I am a reader, not a programmer, so I admit that note was a large “No Go” sign for me and I have not visited the sight. I also acknowledge that that makes me an out-of-date curmudgeon — I would be delighted to receive comments from anyone who has. 🙂

The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller

May 8, 2014

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Alex Miller left his native England for Australia at age 17. As an author, his 11 novels (this is only my third but I intend to get to them all over time) have concentrated on telling Australian stories — but he never forgot his roots.

The last one reviewed here (Watching The Climbers On The Mountain) can certainly be read as an autobiographical story — set on a cattle station in Queensland, it features an 18-year-old stockboy, newly arrived from England.

The Tivington Nott, first published in 1989, is even more personal — and unlike the rest of Miller’s works, it is set in England. Here is an explanation from the author, included in the 2005 Allen & Unwin version that I read:

All the episodes [which take place in 1952], not just a few of them, may be traced back to actual events and experiences in my life, and in the lives of the people, and some of the animals, portrayed here. There was such a stag as the Tivington nott, a horse such as Kabara, a cocky Australian who owned him, a farmer for whom I laboured for two years and who had rightly earned the nickname, ‘Tiger’, a labourer by the name of Morris with whom I lived, a harbourer who would know himself in the figure of Grabbe, and a huntsman of the Devon and Somerset who broke his neck while chasing a hind one winter afternoon. I loved them all, and loved the landscape they inhabited. Briefly, they were my reality.

In some ways, I could stop this review right there since it is a perfect summary of the book (note in particular “I loved them all”) — perhaps the addition of a personal opinion that Miller tells this story exceptionally well would provide the best conclusion. And in offering that enthusiastic endorsement, let me say it shows that Miller overcame a number of well-ingrained, going-in prejudices.

Firstly, I’m not a fan of memoirs, fictional or otherwise. Too often, I find them to be self-indulgent, manipulated versions of history — I’d rather the author let his or her imagination run wild instead of offering a sanitized version of what happened. Miller disposed of this personal bias from the opening paragraph: The Tivington Nott may be based on real events that Miller lived through but the author applies himself conscientiously and completely to developing a fair portrait of what he experienced, including the people (and animals) that were involved.

Secondly, the elements of the story lie far from my interests. Until I picked up the book, I did not know what a “nott” is (a stag without antlers, if you share my ignorance). While I knew elements of rural English society hunted foxes to their death while mounted and chasing a pack of hunting dogs, I wasn’t aware that in parts of the country this also involved deer. I can say with certainty that if I lived in England, then or now, I would be firmly anti-hunt. Once the characters have been introduced, The Tivington Nott is the story of a hunt — to Miller’s credit, I was sympathetically engrossed in the narrative throughout.

Let me offer an extended excerpt where Miller introduces both himself and some of the characters noted above as in illustration of how the author both offers insight of those around him and places himself suitably in the picture:

Even though he is a real grinder I did not mind working for the Tiger. He is not just an uncomplicated farmer. His hard good sense about managing the farm deserts him when it comes to the matter of hunting the wild deer on Exmoor. He fears this passion as a disability and is forever guarding himself against it. Everything he does is complicated for him by this duality in his nature. He tried to get me to address him as ‘Master’ when I first came here from London two years ago. It is the tradition and Morris [the senior farm labourer] abides by it. I respect traditions and have one or two of my own. One of them is not calling people ‘Master’. I could see how much it meant to Tiger to have me conform, however, so I did have a go at it, just to be fair. But it was no good. I couldn’t look him in the eye and say it. I wasn’t being stubborn. There was more to it than that.

Tiger is just a tenant farmer and, as noted, a “grinder” who works his staff hard. But when it comes to the hunt, as that excerpt indicates, his self-image becomes more one of “nearly a squire”. His class is undoubtedly a cut or two below the other hunters, but in both dress and behavior, he tries to narrow the gap. The “grinder” becomes a bit of a sycophant.

What sets the drama off is the arrival in the neighborhood of the “cocky Australian”, Alsop, and his impressive hunting stud, Kabara. Like Tiger, Alsop has pretensions to become one of the upper, hunting classes — unlike Tiger, he has the money to follow through on them.

Alsop’s plan comes apart early in the book when he crashes his car into a rural stone wall and disables himself. He needs someone to look after Kabara and looks to Tiger, whose own hunting stock consists of two, not impressive, geldings. Sensing that Alsop will need to sell the stud (at almost any price) Tiger accepts — and turns the stud over to the narrator.

Miller proves to be an excellent hand at this, exclusively because he lets Kabara have his head and only offers gentle guidance — the stud is more than willing to go along with this bargain. The narrator is fully aware that Tiger, with his “dominate the horse” approach to riding and hunting, will face immediate disaster if he ever mounts the horse — the horse will definitely best the man.

All of which sets up the hunt that occupies most of the 167 pages of the novel. Tiger agrees to take Kabara along as his “second” horse, tended by the narrator. But he instructs Miller to hunt the horse hard, rather than just standing by — he wants the horse to return from the hunt exhausted in order to lower the price he will offer Alsop.

All of that suggests a narrative of simple lives in a closed society that has its own complicated set of hierarchy and rules, all of which the author develops with careful precision. The narrator is certainly an active participant but you can tell from the start that Miller, when he actually lived these events, was every bit as much an acute observer as he was a part of the action.

Miller’s prose is definitely one of the reasons this endeavour succeeded so well for me. For the most part, it is tight and almost journalistic — but when he decides to divert into extended description of nature or action, he does it perfectly.

His eye for characters, and the ability to bring them to life, is equally impressive. This novel, particularly when we get to the hunt, involves a number of individuals from very different classes in a community. Miller finds the ideal balance between sympathetic and critical portrayal to bring both the individuals and broader community to impressive life.

Discipline in writing, discipline in character and, perhaps most impressively, discipline in length — too many authors who can deliver on the first two often fail on that final one. The Tivington Nott is a longish novella/short novel (I read it in one extended sitting) that does not have a single extraneous word. On more than one occasion while reading the book, I thought of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, another gem of a book (with a somewhat similar story) whose author knew exactly what it would take to tell his story.

That makes Alex Miller three for three for me (Autumn Laing is the one I have not yet mentioned). While the three have some similarities, they are very different novels — although each one truly showcases a rare talent for prose. This Australian sure can write and I am delighted to know that I have eight more novels to go (and he is still publishing — yeah!). Stay tuned.

2014 kimbofo While I have an ongoing Alex Miller project, I saved this novel for this month as part of Kimbofo at Reading Matters May project encouraging the reading of Australian and New Zealand books. For full details on the project (and links to reviews from others who are participating), click here. I hope to get to at least two other Antipodean books before the month is out.


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