Into the River by Ted Dawe – Just when you thought book banning was old school.

Into the RiverInto the River by Ted Dawe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My copy of “Into the River”, New Zealand’s supreme winner in the NZPost Book Awards, came with a little black sticker cautioning “Parental Advisory, Explicit Content.” on it. Man, I couldn’t wait to read it as soon as I saw that! Talk about way to sell a book.

But the sordid pornography, gratuitous sex scenes, rampant drug taking and general reckless teenage behaviour that had neurotic parents baulking, never actually materialised. Perhaps that’s because those neurotic parents hadn’t actually READ the book, cover to cover, in context. Or maybe it’s because I still remember what it was like to be a teenager; and I’m not in the business of feigning shock at what goes on when parents’ backs are turned.

Even the much anticipated “C-word” references left me wanting. Like the sound a lone party horn makes just before it fizzes and dies out, those passages were so fleeting, and so perfectly “within context” as to be anti-climatic. I had to re-read them just to give them another chance to make an impact. I felt like saying “C’mon Ted, you gotta earn that Parental Advisory sticker! All you’ve given us so far is real people talking how real people talk!”

And as for the sex scenes, I can honestly say I’ve inadvertently come across more offensive content searching for vacuum cleaner parts on the internet.

Yes, I’m being facetious. But hey! When was the last time a book was banned in New Zealand? This is exciting stuff! Of course, if you want to have a more serious, intelligent, philosophical and moral discussion about these issues I recommend you read Bernard Beckett’s blog and comments section. As a judge of the awards, Bernard has generously invited anyone with an opinion and an internet connection to engage with him on any and all issues raised in the book.

For those of you either not in New Zealand, or living under a rock, you must be wondering what all the fuss is about. Here’s a synopsis: “Into the River” is the story of a young Māori boy from a small rural town on the East Coast of NZ who wins a scholarship to a prestigious (predominantly Pākeha (white)), upper class boarding school in Auckland, on the strength of his academic potential. Te Arepa, or Devon as he’s nicknamed at the new school, carries the name of a heroic ancestor whose courage and bravery once saved the whole iwi (tribe). Te Arepa’s grandfather is ambitious for his grandson, seeing this scholarship as the opportunity to carry the great legacy on in modern times.

Author Ted Dawe is a school teacher with many years experience in the profession, and it shows; this feels like it’s been written by someone on the inside. He has painted larger than life characters, from Grandfather Ra, to Cousin Paikea, to the bully to the best friend, all with a light touch. Dialogue is astutely observed and drives the novel forward. There are scenes vivid enough to make you feel like you’re right there. There’s peer pressure, complicated complex relationships, fast cars, dope, decisions that are made without conscious consideration, repercussions, anger, disappointment, confusion, foolhardiness and loss.

More seriously, it explores the vulnerability of young people and the myriad ways in which they can find themselves in the kind of trouble they never anticipated coming. Including sexual vulnerability. It is about stress and ultimately survival. The momentum builds gradually but relentlessly, weaving together the strands of the past and an uncertain future in a way that ensures you will want to finish it in one sitting. “Into the River” is a so-called prequel to Thunder Road, which makes sense: the ending feels more like a new beginning than a conclusion. Bonus side-note: both novels were self-published to critical acclaim (so there, traditional publishers!).

If you ask me what the real horror in this novel was though, it was the depiction of life at a boy’s boarding school. I wish that someone might be able to reassure me that Ted Dawe got it all wrong when portraying how the pecking order is established and maintained, or how cruelly and even brutally punishments are meted out. But as a school teacher who taught in a boarding school himself, something tells me he was drawing more on fact than imagination. Forget the “C” word, think Lord of the Flies.

Although there are aspects of this novel that can be generalised and will be recognisable to anyone who’s grown up in New Zealand, “Into the River” is not about the general experience at all, rather the very specific experiences of a boy shunted out to the margins of society.

The only time where I questioned the veracity of the story was in the personal journey of Te Arepa himself. Though I liked him a lot, and could identify with his silent outrage, when he acquiesced to the pressure to shed every semblance of his former self, his very identify, in order to be accepted in a Pākeha world, I came up short. Would he really have done that? Would he not have fought back, dug his heels in, even a little?

It’s not that a Pākeha man can’t write about the Māori experience, as some vehement critics have argued. I think Ted Dawe can, and does do credibly. But we are all products of our time, and I would have expected a character like Te Arepa, raised by his grandfather (an elder or possibly even the chief of the iwi?) in a small rural town in a predominantly Māori area of New Zealand, to be fluent, or have at least some knowledge of Te Reo (Māori language). Particularly given that the novel is set in the latter period of the Māori Renaissance (although the novel is not actually specific about the period a mobile phone features, as well as party drug “e”, so it’s at least somewhere post-1990s). In other words, after the Kohanga Reo movement which saw a huge resurgence of the Māori language and an effort particularly in rural areas, to revive its roots. Surely Te Arepa’s concept of the world would have been filtered first through Te Reo?

Likewise, I would have thought Te Arepa’s cultural reference points – such as Kapa Haka, marae life, communal rituals and so on, to have been greater features in his life (and therefore to have been much harder to dispense with). The absence of these tenets may have been deliberate; a comment about the loss and dispossession that Māori have suffered, not to mention the institutional racism endured throughout successive generations. Certainly, Te Arepa feels the only way to survive is to reinvent himself. But somehow I expected the anguish he went through in coming to that conclusion would have been greater than it appeared to be, and his resistance to have been more profound than it was.

Regardless, it’s a great book, well written. And my appreciation for Ted Dawe’s talent and achievement was enriched further after reading more about him, and in particular from listening to Kim Hill’s wonderful interview where he revealed himself to be nothing if not wise, humble, intelligent, creative, and most of all, knowledgeable and passionate about literature as a means of connecting with, and validating the experiences of, young people growing up in New Zealand.

I absolutely recommend his book, although, if you are after something a little less savoury, I suggest you google vacuum cleaner parts instead.

***P.S. If you’re one of aforementioned neurotic parents who feels threatened by books portraying real life with the nasty, sex ridden, drug-addled bits left in, then you’ll be grateful that the helpful people over at Goodreads have done you the favour of putting together a censorship list for you. Go forth and ensure your kids only read these ban books for your teen!***

***P.P.S For a great, balanced review of Into The River, written long before the book won its award and drew negative speculation, see Megan’s review. It’s interesting to gauge the views of someone who was reading with a blank slate, so to speak.***

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The God of Small Things – Getting better with age.

The God of Small ThingsThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most books give us something – but the really special books are the ones that take something away. A piece of ourselves. The God of Small Things is one such book – still.

The first time I read it, way back in 2001, it floored me. All these years later I couldn’t remember much detail about the plot, which is the fate of most books I fear, but I did remember the feeling it left me with; an aching, throbbing, painful sense of loss.

The The Book Thief and The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, and and All the Pretty Horses and Birdsong to name but a few, are all books that fall into a similar category. The category of “books-that-live-on-long-after-you-finish them” category. Books whose characters are frozen in time in that one monumental scene; that one page you cannot forget. A page that was so real and vivid that there is a part of you convinced you were actually there. In The Book Thief it comes when Liesel rocks the body of her beloved Papa. In All The Pretty Horses it’s when John Grady Cole’s girl says to him “I cannot do what you ask. I love you. But I cannot.” With Edgar Mint, that moment comes when he finally pieces together the puzzle of his life, and sitting on the edge of the tub, holds his cursed head in his hand and cries….

And on and on. The unique thing about The God of Small Things, is that there are so many pages that hit you like this. Not solely for the revelations they contain, but for the unique way in which the story is told.

It bothers me that so many people dislike or have found The God of Small Things frustrating to read, so you’ll excuse me if this review takes on a defensive tone. I do understand why it is a polarising read. Once you learn that a little girl drowned amidst a backdrop of family scandal, which you do within the first 5 or 6 pages, for what purpose would you continue reading? Giving your readers the entire plot within the opening pages, and then cycling and double-backing over the events like you might crochet a blanket is certainly no conventional way to tell a story.

Yet somehow Roy still manages to achieve a perfect story arc. The climax – an event which you already know is coming – builds towards the end with a momentum that insists you seek out the detail; the small things.

Granted, the reader has to work hard to put together a time-sequence that works, pretty much for the duration of the novel, all while getting to know the many larger-than-life characters and where they fit into the web of intricate relationships that bind one to another (for an excellent review of the characters see Lisa’s review here). I understand that this could be tiring, especially if you’re not enamoured by wordplay, which has to be understood as a A Thing Itself (to borrow a quirk of expression from Roy).

You have to be able to appreciate words for their own sake; for their power, for their playfulness, for their precision, their ability to say one thing yet mean another, their weakness and inadequacy, their relationship to other words, their malleability but ultimately their authority.

This is particularly apparent in the dialogue between the twins, much of which is communicated silently, and often uses repetitive phrases and invented words.

Across the tall iron railing that separated Meeters from the Met, and Greeters from the Gret, Chacko, beaming, bursting through his suit and sideways tie, bowed to his new daughter and ex-wife. In his mind, Estha said, “Bow”.

People, places and adult interactions are also often described from the perspective of the children:

The skyblue Plymouth with tailfins had a smile for Sophie Mol. A chromebumpered sharksmile. A Paradise Pickles carsmile.

and

But the Waiting Air grew Angry….. In the quietness of the Play (the Blue Army in the green-heat still watching), Ammu walked back to the Plymouth, took out her suitcase, slammed the door, and walked away to her room, her shoulders shining.

But then how about this for a description:

The taxi smelled of old sleep. Old clothes rolled up. Damp towels. Armpits. It was, after all, the taxi driver’s home. He lived in it. It was the only place he had to store his smells. The seats had been killed. Ripped. A swathe of dirty yellow sponge spilled out and shivered on the backseat like an immense jaundiced liver. The driver had the ferrety alertness of a small rodent. He had a hooked Roman nose and a Little Richard mustache.

With the story focusing primarily on the twins in the days before and after Sophie Mol’s death, Roy subtly reinforces their overwhelming innocence, powerlessness and vulnerability in what happened (and in the actions and reactions of others), even though ultimately it became the singular event determining the future of their entire lives.

It is particularly painful, for example, when the children, starving for for the sunlight of mother’s affection, let her down – in the normal way that children let their parents down. But Ammu’s dedication to raising them well is an expression of her love, and when they misbehave she withdraws that love. Not deliberately, not maliciously, but in the way that hurt people sometimes hurt. In the way that adults sometimes do carelessly, with the blind certainty that comes from thinking you will have all the time in the world to make amends. As a mother, who knows the pleasure of being worshipped by her children (however fleeting it may be!), these were the scenes that raked at my chest like a breadknife. Because I’m flippant sometimes too. And we all make mistakes. It’s just that in Ammu’s case, the consequences of her arrogance were devastating.

“D’you know what happens when you hurt people?” Ammu said. “When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

and

“Just go away!” Ammu had said. “Why can’t you just go away and leave me alone?!” So they had.

But Ammu is not heartless or callous. She is simply a fallible human being who had no way of predicting that her throw-away words would trigger such a fateful series of events. Besides, there are any number of other people who could be held responsible for the tragedy that unfolded on the river that day – depending on how far you want to go back and how wide you want to cast the net. Whether it be a disgruntled, jealous, conniving aunt, a drunk but well-meaning man o’ his times, the entire caste-system which prohibited the affair between Ammu and Velutha in the first place, a violent father whose abuse of his wife echoed on down through the generations, or the cops who were ‘just doing their duty’.

This is why Roy quotes John Berger in the preface to her novel “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” The God of Small Things is more about the characters than it is about the things that happen to them. It’s no good to understand merely what happened, we need to know why. This requires close and diligent scrutiny of the detail. No stone should be left unturned. If someone is to blame for a tragedy, if someone must bear responsibility for the grief and misery and hardship that another has suffered, we must find out who. Is anyone truly innocent?

Or if no-one is to blame, perhaps we should blame the God of Small Things – the one who controls the tiny twists of fate that slowly contribute, build-up and accumulate over time, drop by drop, until finally the water breaches the brim and the bucket tips over – in which case, can any single person ever be held entirely responsible?

People have criticised the God of Small Things for forcing them to suffer under the weight of all this detail, but I want yell “No!!! The DETAIL is the Point!” Maybe if The God of Small Things were renamed The God of Detail, people would be less frustrated?

Rating in 2001 = 5 stars
Rating in 2013 = 5 stars

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http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/daily-prompt-words/

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoë Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the kind of book whose cover says outrageous things like “gripping” and “addictive” and is all the more so simply because for once, those damn reviewers aren’t lying.

Middle aged Sheba is a new teacher who becomes romantically involved with a 15 year old boy in her class, to the horror and destruction of her husband and family. Barbara, from whose perspective the novel is narrated, is the older woman, confidante and friend who stands by Sheba throughout the affair and trial that follows.

That’s about all anyone can really say without giving away spoilers. Except perhaps “beware when the stalker becomes the stalked”, and “don’t believe all you hear” and “wow, I’m gonna watch Single White Female again.”

I’ve since learned that this book was made into a film with Cate Blanchett cast as Sheba and Judi Dench as Barbara – Yes and Yes! Perfection.

Zoe Heller is one of those authors that make you feel immediately confident in her skill – you don’t always know where she’s going, but no word is superfluous, no paragraph or observation out of place. You can feel it all moving towards a crescendo which, when it’s done, you will want to stand up and applaud.

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Salmon Fishing In The YemenSalmon Fishing In The Yemen by Paul Torday

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fabulous, rip-roaringly wonderful read. If only all books could be as pleasurable an experience as this one. Is there any point in recapping the plot? This book’s been around for awhile now (kudos to Anna who gave me a copy in 2007 with assuranes of a guaranteed great read – which I ignored for a good half decade). And it’s just recently been made into a movie starring some good looking famous people.

There’s a love story (isn’t there always), a wealthy Sheikh (ditto), lots of political intrigue, scandal and oh, ego of course. Wherever you look, it’s just ego, ego, ego. Pure and hilarious. The frightening thing is, having worked within the public service for awhile and being a little bit familiar with the science of “getting stuff done” while managing sensitive diplomatic relations at the same time, much of what is depicted in Salmon Fishing seems to be really very close to reality. It’s satirised, to be sure, but I get the sense that Paul Torday’s cynicism isn’t based on nothing.

Of course, this book was always going to resonate with me more now, living in the Middle East where much of the book is set, than it did back in 2007 when I was living on the other side of the world in Samoa. But still, that’s no excuse. This book has broad appeal, I don’t care where you live. Deep down there’s a thoughtful message too, but my take away is definitely the humour. I’ll stop by my bookshelf often just to read and re-read the email exchanges between Alfred and his almost-not-quite-estranged wife. Oh, and the interludes with Peter Maxwell, whose TV show idea was spectacularly ridiculous in the extreme. P. 240. Read it and weep.

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The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow BirdsThe Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers has been hailed as the “All Quiet on the Western Front” for modern times. It is the story of a young man who ventures off to war (Iraq), charged with a duty and a promise to look out for his best mate, and return him to his mother safely – a promise he should never have made and had no hope of keeping.

Reviewers have been so resoundingly positive about this novel that I am slightly nervous in adding my own thoughts lest they be construed as blasphemous. Because something about the flow did not resonate with me. The story is told in a series of stilted interior monologues, which although incredibly powerful in and of themselves, seem to dominate to such a degree that the plot (*NAEW) is entirely subjugated.

Furthermore, the monologues are disjointed; shifting back and forth in time such that a person has to work unnecessarily hard to keep up. As a rule, I wouldn’t normally mind this because I think this is an accurate reflection of how we actually experience our lives – perhaps even more so when suffering from PTSD as John Bartle clearly is. Life is lived backwards and around and around circles as much as it is a linear experience.

And certainly, Powers can write. You won’t get any dispute from me on that point. The depictions of the anxiety of war, the pure state of constant stress and alertness that these young men live under, are truly harrowing. There is an honesty, brutality, but above all, a genuine power for observation, that shines through Powers’ writing.

But for all of that, something in the authenticity of John Bartle’s voice just didn’t ring true for me. Perhaps, cumulatively, the effort involved in following the various threads and piecing them together in their correct time sphere created a distance between us. But whatever it was, I just didn’t connect with him. I empathised, but I wasn’t always convinced he was telling me, or himself, the truth. But maybe that’s the point. John Bartle himself does say

“I felt like I was looking at a lie. But I didn’t mind. The world makes liars of us all.”

I sometimes wonder if an essay by Kevin Powers wouldn’t have been equally or even more powerful. Certainly, Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction title “War” had a profound impact on my view of the Iraq war. Or perhaps all that is needed is a second reading and a little more faith next time?

*NAEW = not an evil word

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Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only FruitOranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book, because I love Jeanette Winterson. I mean, as a person and a writer, I greatly admire her. Every time I hear her speak I want to stand up and applaud, she’s witty and irreverent and insightful and inspiring and this – Oranges, is THE quintessential Winterson novel, isn’t it, so I just HAD to love it?

But I didn’t! Not at all! It was painful and slow and downright bizarre in places. There were loose threads that couldn’t be pinned down and unresolved issues and a lot of plodding, plodding, plodding. But then again, there were times of real connection; real sympathy and humour. It got me all in a muddle. I had the same reaction to Written on The Body, which I loved right the way up until Winterson started drawing analogies between a woman’s crotch and the smell of a cooking partridge. You know that moment when you’re going, “yep, you got me, I’m with you, I’m listening, I hear ya” and then all of a sudden “….ahh, shit, nope. You lost me.”

But that’s ok. I still reserve my right to keep on loving Jeanette Winterson, even though her novels seem intent on not loving me.

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Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles
The Song of Achilles is the literary equivalent of a cover song. The original version, an epic poem set during the Trojan war, was penned by Homer somewhere around the 8th Century BC and is titled The Iliad. As cover stories go, it was always going to be a tough interpretation to pull off at all, let alone well. The Iliad, so I’ve learned, is one of the oldest, most respected, and much loved works of Western Literature; in attempting to retell it, Madeline Miller risked doing what Limp Bizkit did to The Who’s classic 70s hit “Behind Blue Eyes”.

There are certainly some who believe she failed just as miserably in her efforts as those synthetic nasties who can’t spell. Daniel Mendelsohn’s review, for example, reads like a catalogue of insults Ms Miller directed at him personally. Clearly, for some, if you ‘aint got the guitar solo, you ‘aint got nuthin’. Then there are those, like me, whose knowledge of classic literature is derived almost entirely from the vast vessel that is Hollywood’s spin on every great story ever told. This would no doubt be a scandal to aforementioned Daniel, but sadly, not all of us are either a) so fortunate to receive a private school education b) geeky or time-rich enough to have borrowed such books from the library of our own accord or c) confident enough that a 5 year degree studying the classics at University would result in a job that actually put bread on the table.

So lucky me, I got to dive into Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel with absolutely no baggage. It is the story of Achilles as narrated from the grave by Patroclus. These two were childhood companions in the court of King Peleus; Achilles the favoured son, destined in prophecy to become the Greatest of the Greeks, Patroclus a shamed exile from a neighbouring kingdom. Their friendship developed into a deep romantic attachment that would endure and survive despite parental interference, infidelity, politics and a decade of war. It is a love story as engrossing as anything anyone can conjure all these centuries later, and that’s not just because the bar has been set 50 Shades too low.

But love cannot compete with destiny. When Achilles is dishonoured by the arrogant Commander-in-Chief, Agamemnon, he refuses to return to the battlefield. Without Achilles, the Greeks cannot hope to win the war. In the following days and weeks the army is relentlessly pushed back towards the sea, and as their compatriots are buried in their hundreds every day, Agamemnon offers Achilles a face-saving truce. But Achilles will not concede to anything less than a full and public apology, even when Patroclus appeals to Achilles to forego his pride. Patroclus’ intercession is as much for the sake of the men as it is for Briseis, the woman over whom the fallout was caused. When it is clear that Achilles will not budge, Patroclus takes matters into his own hands, with predictably devastating consequences.

If liberties were taken by Ms Miller, they did not bruise or sully my conception of anything I already treasured, being as I am completely new to this story. It did, however, pique my interest sufficiently to wonder not only “what happened next?”, but more significantly, how this story was depicted in Homer’s original. In other words, I was drawn to the source. After squeezing every last word out of the lengthy passages on Greek Mythology in Wikipedia, and taking in the further reading recommendations offered by the ever reliable Lisa Hill, I realised there was nothing else for it. Book Depository, The Iliad = add to cart. I need to read this sucker for myself.

That’s the thing about adapting artistic works, whether it’s taking the lyrics and changing the tune, or turning a book into a film: it’s not an attempt to broadside the original so much as an opportunity to discover it anew. Sure, mistakes are made – if you can call Brad Pitt in a breast plate a mistake (certainly there’s no argument that Halle Berre’s appearance in Limp Bizkit’s video was a mistake), but what greater compliment can you give ancient texts and songs by rockers who are now in rockers, than to say – not “this was relevant” – but this is still relevant”.

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The Trouble With Fire by Fiona Kidman

The Trouble With FireThe Trouble With Fire by Fiona Kidman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dame Fiona Kidman, I salute you.

Where most people see ordinary, you see extraordinary. Where others believe nothing has happened, you reveal how the earth can be detached and reattached at a slightly altered tilt, in a single instant of a woman’s life.

A while ago you gave us A Needle in the Heart, a collection of six short stories obscurely linked, building to a crescendo that I remember now more for the chill it left me, than the actual details itself. The Trouble with Fire might ebb the same way in time, but no matter, I will take pleasure in reading them anew. It is not the minutiae that lingers so much as an aura; like a perfume whose scent you will remember even when the name escapes you.

There are 11 stories, all set in New Zealand, all feature women living so-called ‘ordinary lives’; all involve memory, and of course fire – whether literally or metaphorically. Of these stories, the reviewers appear to have given the highest praise to Silks, the story about a woman whose husband falls ill while holidaying in Vietnam. The horror and the uncertainty, the stress and the grind, the waiting and the waiting, is interspersed with her recollections of their life and marriage.

Possibly thanks to those reviewers, Silks was the short story that I had held out for the most, open ears for the pearls of wisdom that might be passed down from one generation to another. Here, I thought you might say, This is what true love looks like; or this is how you know when you know”.

I’m not sure, though. Maybe I wasn’t listening? Or perhaps, more likely, you’re just doing what you do so well; showing us that there are no rules, no tidy boxes, no generalisations. Each life is unique. Each marriage unique.

I sat up and paid attention in Extremes. The young girl in 1950s rural New Zealand who falls pregnant and is forced to travel to Australia to have an abortion. I’ve read about the ‘fallen women’ who went into homes and gave up their babies for adoption before, but I didn’t know there were alternatives, if you can call such life-threatening misadventures in upholding the moral code an “alternative”.

I laughed out loud in Preservation. I won’t give away any spoilers, suffice to say it was rather dark. Come to think of it, The Italian Boy was too, in places. Disturbing secrets and hinted scandals. But what I held precious in that story is the scene where Hilary resists Meryl’s pressure to abandon the old-fashioned dress her mother pored over for weeks, in order to wear something more in keeping with the times.

“In this setting, Hilary saw that her aunt’s old dress from the thirties wouldn’t do. And yet, thinking of last Saturday, and the afternoon she and her mother had spent together, their hands bathed in the soft fabric of the dress, she was overwhelmed by a fierce rush of loyalty. She said: ‘Well thanks, but I want to wear the dress I brought”.[p. 29]

I struggled with the depiction of various Māori characters who featured in a number of stories, whether on the periphery (as in Extremes) or playing a central role (as in Fragrance Rising). But then I realised that what sits uncomfortably with me now, was back then, simply the reality of the times. New Zealand in the 1950s, indeed right through until the late 80s, is a place not many of us would recognise anymore. All you’ve done is describe that reality accurately and honestly – such that it resonates with me on a very personal level. Aaah! I thought. This was the social and political landscape in which my Pākehā mother married my Māori father. And the earth tilts for me too.

If there’s a supreme award though, it goes to the story of Ruth Mullens and her mother Joy Keats. The fate of these women and their families, is woven through three interlinked stories and as many generations. It reminded me much of the BBC acclaimed trilogy Lost Property by Katie Hims. Rather than a child that is lost, however, in The Man From Tooley Street it is a mother. And while invariably life goes on, the loss echoes down through the generations and leaves no-one unaffected.

So hats off to you, Dame Fiona Kidman, you’ve made history personal, the mundane insightful, the tragedy universal, the dark humorous. And thus concludes another little mini-celebration of the beauty and non-ordinaryness of New Zealand women throughout history.

* The Trouble With Fire was a finalist in this year’s (2012) NZ Post Book Awards and at the time of posting has spent 12 weeks on the Best Seller list in New Zealand.

View all my reviewsThe Trouble With FireThe Trouble With Fire by Fiona Kidman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dame Fiona Kidman, I salute you.

Where most people see ordinary, you see extraordinary. Where others believe nothing has happened, you reveal how the earth can be detached and reattached at a slightly altered tilt, in a single instant of a woman’s life.

A while ago you gave us A Needle in the Heart, a collection of six short stories obscurely linked, building to a crescendo that I remember now more for the chill it left me, than the actual details itself. The Trouble with Fire might ebb the same way in time, but no matter, I will take pleasure in reading them anew. It is not the minutiae that lingers so much as an aura; like a perfume whose scent you will remember even when the name escapes you.

There are 11 stories, all set in New Zealand, all feature women living so-called ‘ordinary lives’; all involve memory, and of course fire – whether literally or metaphorically. Of these stories, the reviewers appear to have given the highest praise to Silks, the story about a woman whose husband falls ill while holidaying in Vietnam. The horror and the uncertainty, the stress and the grind, the waiting and the waiting, is interspersed with her recollections of their life and marriage.

Possibly thanks to those reviewers, Silks was the short story that I had held out for the most, open ears for the pearls of wisdom that might be passed down from one generation to another. Here, I thought you might say, This is what true love looks like; or this is how you know when you know.

I’m not sure, though. Maybe I wasn’t listening? Or perhaps, more likely, you’re just doing what you do so well; showing us that there are no rules, no tidy boxes, no generalisations. Each life is unique. Each marriage unique.

I sat up and paid attention in Extremes. The young girl in 1950s rural New Zealand who falls pregnant and is forced to travel to Australia to have an abortion. I’ve read about the ‘fallen women’ who went into homes and gave up their babies for adoption before, but I didn’t know there were alternatives, if you can call such life-threatening misadventures in upholding the moral code an “alternative”.

I laughed out loud in Preservation. I won’t give away any spoilers, suffice to say it was rather dark. Come to think of it, The Italian Boy was too, in places. Disturbing secrets and hinted scandals. But what I held precious in that story is the scene where Hilary resists Meryl’s pressure to abandon the old-fashioned dress her mother pored over for weeks, in order to wear something more in keeping with the times.

“In this setting, Hilary saw that her aunt’s old dress from the thirties wouldn’t do. And yet, thinking of last Saturday, and the afternoon she and her mother had spent together, their hands bathed in the soft fabric of the dress, she was overwhelmed by a fierce rush of loyalty. She said: ‘Well thanks, but I want to wear the dress I brought”.[p. 29]

I struggled with the depiction of various Māori characters who featured in a number of stories, whether on the periphery (as in Extremes) or playing a central role (as in Fragrance Rising). But then I realised that what sits uncomfortably with me now, was back then, simply the reality of the times. New Zealand in the 1950s, indeed right through until the late 80s, is a place not many of us would recognise anymore. All you’ve done is describe that reality accurately and honestly – such that it resonates with me on a very personal level. Aaah! I thought. This was the social and political landscape in which my Pākehā mother married my Māori father. And the earth tilts for me too.

If there’s a supreme award though, it goes to the story of Ruth Mullens and her mother Joy Keats. The fate of these women and their families, is woven through three interlinked stories and as many generations. It reminded me much of the BBC acclaimed trilogy Lost Property by Katie Hims. Rather than a child that is lost, however, in The Man From Tooley Street it is a mother. And while invariably life goes on, the loss echoes down through the generations and leaves no-one unaffected.

So hats off to you, Dame Fiona Kidman, you’ve made history personal, the mundane insightful, the tragedy universal, the dark humorous. And thus concludes another little mini-celebration of the beauty and non-ordinaryness of New Zealand women throughout history.

* The Trouble With Fire was a finalist in this year’s (2012) NZ Post Book Awards and at the time of posting has spent 12 weeks on the Best Seller list in New Zealand.

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The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ever known someone so wrapped up in themselves that they cannot fathom a situation or circumstance where they are not the centre of all that is occurring? No, I’m not talking about myself. Someone who writes themselves into the starring role of every scene and plot twist. Someone so deluded as to be incapable of recognising that the icy chill of uncertainty (around why people did what they did, said what they said, etc) is not coming from any hostility from the supposed “supporting characters”, so much as a complete indifference about his/her existence altogether. In other words, a person whose own narrative is so far out on the periphery of someone else’s story that they don’t even realise that this is the case until they’ve lost both feet to frostbite.

This is the character Julian Barnes has given us in Tony Webster. Advancing in years and declining in social skills, which is to suppose he had any to begin with, Tony is compelled to take a trip down memory lane after he is bequeathed an unusual gift by the mother of a woman he used to date forty years ago. The contents of this gift (of which the most important piece was a diary) cannot logically be accounted for, much less the woman’s motives; and so begins Tony’s quest to fill in the missing pieces. All paths lead back to the tragic suicide of his best friend four decades ago, Adrian, to whom the diary belonged. Tony’s ex, Victoria, had been dating Adrian at the time of his death, a fact he had been less than enthusiastic about, to put it mildly. In seeking answers, Tony fails to query even the most simple, straightforward, arguably most urgent of questions, such as, for example, what role the mother had in all of this and how it was that she came to be in posession of Adrian’s diary in the first place.

Tony is the kind of guy you want to shake by the shoulders, to wave your hands in front and say “Yo! Tonz!! It’s not all about you!”. But bumble on he will, even allowing himself to entertain romantic notions about where his recently rekindled “relationship” with Victoria may be leading. Tony makes no attempt to provide an objective view on why that relationship failed back then, happy to essentially blame it all on her. Not surprisingly, he is none the wiser about her several decades later either. In other words, Tony is basically a self-centred pompous ass.

But here’s the thing; he’s an authentic pompous ass. He’s a real guy, I imagine that he really exists. Him, and dozens more just like him. He’s the guy who’s plodded through life, done alright for himself, ticked the boxes, crossed his t’s, stayed out of trouble. He finds women confusing, doesn’t know why his wife left him and is apparently uninterested in the answer, and ultimately decides that life is quite enjoyable on his own anyway, thank you very much. He has grandkids and a daughter who doesn’t have much time for him, but that’s life isn’t it? He can be a right pain in rear end if he needs to to achieve his ends, which is quite often the case. Take the time he used his slightly-better-than-average intellect to argue the point with an insurance company for example, a months-long campaign for the sake of principal and nothing more. “Eventually, exasperatedly, they proposed a thirty per cent reduction in the lime tree’s canopy, a solution I accepted with deep expressions of regret and much inner exhileration”.

But when you’re not being amused and/or offended by Tony, you can’t help but feel sorry for him – especially when he is forced to assess which memories he chose to minimise, versus those he chose to aggrandize. The jaw-grimmacing letter he wrote to Adrian when he learned of their relationship, vs the meaning of the the wink brother Jack gave him when Victoria remarked “He’ll do”. Still, it all comes out in the wash. And when it does you feel sorry for Tony again; because what relief he may have felt at not being anything like as pivotal a character in events as he might have thought, is quickly replaced by a kind of sad deflation that he really wasn’t as pivotal a character as he might have thought.

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The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Me and 36,700 other people enjoyed the dust-cover off this book. I haven’t got it in me to write a full review, because I’m feeling a little sheepish. Here’s why:

1 – It’s a love story between two terminally-ill cancer patients, and I laughed quite a lot
2 – It’s meant to be for Young Adults, but I’m 34. Does that make the book really good, or me really immature?
3 – It’s only been in bookstores for 6 months, which means I paid the full hard-back price for this book, and I never, ever buy hardbacks. They are expensive. They are heavy. They ruin the visually-pleasing height thing I have going in my paperback dominated bookcase.
4 – I was affected by the declarations of love on these pages enough to write down the quotes for future reference. Such as:

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

I must admit, I’m a bit of a snob. Liking a book on the NY Time Bestseller list irks me. I would have preferred to be in the company of the 5 people that gave this book less than 3 stars (look them up, their reviews are solid).

But books are like lovers. You can’t always help who you’re attracted to.

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