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And that was 2014

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Well, here we are, end of the year. Already. I did review six books for the Australian Women Writers review challenge, as I said I would, in a year where I moved twice and made a huge life change …. at times it felt like a bit of a burden to do the reviews in the middle of all the everything, but it did get me looking at books I may otherwise have missed.

The six books reviewed were:

The Sinkings by Amanda Curtin

Inherited by Amanda Curtin

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Krester

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsythe

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor.

I enjoyed every one of these books and absolutely loved four of them.  I’m not sure I love reviewing, but it’s good practice and makes me think.

to make the ten I committed to, (plus one) I also read:

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Morairty

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

Cusp by Josephine Wilson

A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Wilson

The World Beneath by Cate Kennedy

On reflection, if I can do the reviews in a year as big as 2014 has been , well …  I could do it again in 2015. Stay posted!

Happy New Year!

Karen M.


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Review – Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor

Indelible Ink

       Paperback, 452 pages
       Published August 1st 2010 by Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. (first published May        31st 2010)

 

Indelible Ink

The front cover of this book proclaimed it  ‘The Age Book Of The Year’ – in 2011; I’m catching up on a whole swag of AWWs I’ve never come across until I picked up this challenge. So, although I hadn’t heard of it, I opened it with considerable anticipation. That was back in January. I picked up and set down the book a number of times, only managing to get to page 90 or so by July, but I finally got it finished about a week ago. To be fair to the book, I had an intense first half to the year, closing my practice and moving interstate; reading about a woman whose life undergoes radical change in every dimension may not have been the wisest choice. I should note that after things settled a bit in my own life, I read the rest of it without much trouble.

The story is woven from several threads and organised into three sections; Ink, Blood and Water – these may reflect the themes of identity, change,and  discovery

Ink –   this section explores identity and belonging, that which is inscribed upon us or printed into us, as seen through the lens of 59 year old Marie King, a conservative, over-practised people pleaser, unwillingly single after a long and unsatisfactory marriage. She has to sell the house that represents everything defining her – marriage, children, garden. It also means deciding where she wants to be, which means thinking about who she is – and there’s the rub.

Blood – relates to a second major thread, that of change – how we know ourselves and how we react to losing the familiar. It is explored through the thread of the tattoo motif and the fate that befalls Marie.

Water – discovery, the third thread. What lies beyond the familiar, and what lies within or perhaps beyond our known self, as we negotiate that which life so relentlessly dishes up.

Marie lives on the North Shore of Sydney in a great big house with a great big – and beloved – garden. Her rotten, domineering husband has finally left her. In the settlement he got the business and whatever else, she got the house.  She’s always been a drinker, but her new found freedom allows her to overindulge to the point of self-destructiveness and shameful behaviour. After one such incident where a drunken Marie, shopping with her friend Susan, disgraces herself in a shop, we get this perfect description of the cast iron rules of engagement in Marie’s social circles:

“Marie walked down the path beside Susan, trowel and pots in hand. She was debating with herself whether to apologise for vomiting in the homewares shop. When Susan had arranged to come and get plants, she hadn’t mentioned it, but plenty of things were never mentioned let alone apologised for.”

One night, drunk and feeling defiant in her newfound freedom, and with a neat reversal of the usual direction of envy, Marie decides she can get a tattoo if she wants to – and does. Thus begins a whole new adventure into questions of identity, belonging, societal mores and the like. She meets Rhys, the lesbian tattoo artist and perhaps most likeable character in the book (or maybe that was Brian, the ex-con). Of course, Marie’s kith and kin are scandalised, allowing plenty of opportunity to explore family dynamics, the individual versus culture and subculture. Marie is on her first date in decades, and her beau spies her tattoos:

I’m sorry Marie. I have trouble understanding why people do these things to themselves.’

‘I love my tattoos’

‘You’ve got more?’

‘Yes, four.’

Marie felt like a blemish on these tasteful furnishings. the mushroom walls, scrolls of Chinese calligraphy, Egyptian cotton sheets. The long wooden body beside her, legs crossed at the ankles. She felt humiliated, and in the slipstream of this humiliation began to grow a brittle defiance.

Davids voice came thin and small ‘Can I see them?’

Marie didn’t really want David to see the tattoos now his unease was so evident. She didn’t want to be judged or feared, but she had offered him her body and the tattoos were a part of that, so she didn’t feel able or even willing to take them away. David stared, reaching out to touch. As he moved, the sheet fell away. He tried to hide his erection.

‘Well,’ Marie quipped, ‘they can’t be that bad,’ thinking what a nice dick he had, angry with him now, angry with herself for thinking yet another compliment, … ”

Marie’s struggles with finding her own sense of agency, especially as her health destabilises, and it’s easy to feel sympathy for her as she struggles along.  The rest of the cast is another matter. I couldn’t manage to like most of the characters for the first fifty percent or so of the book. Neither did I hate them. I just didn’t feel much at all, other than they were all terrifically self-centred. Also – the dilemma of poor old Marie having to sell the house, at enormous profit (to pay off her escalating debts), didn’t seem like such a terrible crisis – a fall from high society, yes, and I did understand this was supposed to be the loss of everything by which Marie identifies herself, but the air in the upper echelons of Sydney society seemed so thin and cold, it didn’t feel like a terrible calamity. In the passages where Marie contemplates the loss of her garden I had more sympathy – there are many such passages and the Sydney landscape in the grip of a hot, impossible summer, laying waste to the garden whilst every one fails to understand the ramifications because they are too busy complaining, is very well drawn. Marie’s life is being just as severely ‘burned’ and the spectre of death hovers. 

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the characters, there is a kind of alchemy in the book. By the end of it I had warmed to every character, despite the unpromising beginnings. Fiona McGregor has a sharp, keen eye for place and physical character and although I don’t know Sydney well at all, I’m willing to bet she has captured the feel of Mosman and Surrey Hills and their denizens perfectly. There is one incisive comment after another about society, the state of the environment, the city, the neuroses of ordinary everyday folk like thee and me. Having initially thought she didn’t like her own characters, I came to see she just doesn’t  judge them. Rich or poor, sensitive or stupid, well behaved or atrociously behaved – she just lays it out before us and lets us discover our own prejudices in our reactions to them.

I loved the last section, and the ending – unsentimental as it is, it seems right on the money as a final comment on whether or not we are a product of what we come from, our place, be that physical, cultural, psychological – or not.

Indelible? Maybe. Maybe not.


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The Light Between Oceans – Review

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   Published July 31st 2012 by Scribner
   ISBN  1451681739 (ISBN13: 9781451681734)

This story, published in 2012, is a debut novel – I am impressed. It opens with On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.” In this first sentence, life and death arrive together and we are immediately set on a path of intricately bound conflicts, in an ever rising swell between past and present, husband and wife, right and wrong, light and darkness – between ‘oceans’ indeed. Even the setting on Janus Rock, Janus being the two-faced God looking both forward and backwards, indicates the duality of all things. 

Specifically, we have Tom Sherbourne, product of an emotionally scarred childhood and a survivor of WW1, trying to find some meaning and purpose to having fought and to still being alive. He is the light, the rock, honourable and steadfast, who finds other people baffling and disturbing. He finds ways to cope: “You don’t think ahead in years or months: you think about this hour, and maybe the next. Anything else is speculation.”  He just wants to forget the past, and keep his focus close. However, internal peace proves to be elusive, so he opts instead for a kind of external peace in the isolation of being a lighthouse keeper. He accepts an undesirable posting to the most remote lighthouse in the country, on Janus Rock, where he is to endure three year stints on the island, utterly alone for months at a time. The nearest landfall town is Partageuse, one hundred miles away. There he meets nineteen year old Isabel, his ‘Izzy’, a firecracker of a girl. Against all his expectations, she is the light in his darkness and they quickly marry and set about a simple, happy life on Janus Rock. Izzy wants children, lots of them, but after three miscarriages, the last of which is a perfectly formed little boy, Izzy’s light begins to fade and Tom is worried. 

Thus, with the backstory under our belts, the preciousness of life in the face of such loss, we can believe the turn of events that starts the story – a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a tiny, crying infant girl, only a couple of months old. Izzy is a grieving woman who desperately wants a child … and here is a child, delivered as if from the hand of God. 

And here too is the first shadow in the paradise of Tom and Izzy’s relationship. Izzy, immediately enraptured by the baby, is absolute in her conviction the child is theirs to keep. Thus we see how easily and well we deceive ourselves: “On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.” 

Tom is uncertain, aware there is a wrongness in what seems so right, but he wants Izzy to be happy. From this point onwards, we are swept back and forth, tide-like, between right and wrong, past and present, individual need and love of the other. We are made to feel every nuance in the tricky ethical landscape these characters inhabit, and we are made to feel every swell of joy and trough of despair. It’s impossible not to see very one’s point of view and feel sympathetic to everyone, except perhaps, the nasty policeman.

Matters become infinitely more complicated as the lie insinuates itself into the fibre of Izzy’s family, and into the local community. Then, the child’s real mother enters the picture and what was an understandable lie that might be forgivable, becomes an ongoing cruelty, that Tom cannot support. He is torn between his personal  Scylla and Charibdys – hurting Izzy and the child, Lucy, by doing the right and proper thing, or knowingly contributing to the terrible pain of others who have done nothing to deserve it. He searches for a way, seeking the advice of Ralph, who thinks he’s talking about the war; “… got me thinking about everything I’ve done wrong in my life, and how to put it right before I die’. He opened his mouth to go on, but an image of Isabel bathing their stillborn son silenced him, and he balked.” … “Jesus Christ I just want to do the right thing, Ralph! Tell me what the right fucking thing to do is! I – I just can’t stand this! I can’t do it any more!”

As Tom says, ”Can a right make good a wrong? Is there wrong in a greater good?’’

Which right is most right? Which wrong is most wrong? How do you protect those you love in an impossible situation like this, where, no matter what you do, someone innocent will suffer? Especially Lucy, the child wanted by everyone – who is her mother now? What is a mother, really? 

Whilst this might all sound like heavy going, Stedman’s pacing and writing, the question what happens next, the stakes high, makes this a page turner. In the end, this is a redemption story; the dilemma and all it’s ramifications are played out, right up to the point of life and death. What a journey! The emotional lives of Tom, Izzy and all the other characters are as deep and strong, as vast, as wild as any ocean. The risk of drowning is always close and hearts do break.

Stedman has done her homework – the details of life in a lighthouse are convincing, life on an isolated island is brilliantly rendered, and the portrait of life in a remote Western Australian town in the 1920’s is so sharply drawn I can just see the movie. There are many other moral issues woven into the story; the matter of war; the abuse of children; the mob mentality and it’s horrible effects, life in harsh and hard conditions, the things we do to get by.

I read this in one short and one long sitting; I was moved by it – to tears, in fact.


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reading is slow…

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So, I haven’t had much to say for a while; I’m snowed under with sorting, packing, ending things.  I have started three books – The Snow Book by Alexis Wright – which I have set aside until I have proper brain space, since it looks like a good book, but not a a book for going to sleep by. It deserves more than that. the second book I’ve started and progressed a ways into is “Indelible Ink” by Fiona McGregor. It is put-downable, though to be fair, I think I need to persist a bit and let it’s complexities unfold further. The third book on the go is Amanda Curtin’s “Inherited”, a collection of short stories, which are thus far delightful and delighting. I’ll read them all before reviewing. So, for those who have asked, that’s where it’s at!