I don’t often get a chance to read the wonderful-sounding Australian books I see on prize shortlists or on Kate’s blog, so I was delighted when Extinctions, which won the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was published in the UK last year. It may just be my mind making easy associations, but Josephine Wilson’s second novel indeed reminded me of other Australian fiction I’ve enjoyed, including The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, and The Singing Ship by Rebecca Winterer. I can’t quite put my finger on what these novels have in common despite their disparate time settings. A hot and forbidding landscape? An enduring sense of pioneer spirit, of survival against the odds? All four, to an extent, pit an explorer’s impetus against family trauma and/or racial difference.
The antihero of Extinctions is widower Frederick Lothian, who at age 69 is a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s January 2006, the middle of a blistering Australian summer, and amid his usual morbid activities of reading the newspaper obituaries and watching his elderly co-residents fall over outside his air-conditioned unit, he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. A retired engineer, he’s an expert on concrete construction as well as a noted collector of modernist furniture. But he’s been much less successful in his personal life. His son is in a care home after a devastating accident, and his adopted daughter Caroline, who is part Aborigine, blames and avoids Fred. A run-in with a nosy neighbor, Jan, forces him to face the world – and his past – again.
Meanwhile, Caroline is traveling in the UK to secure specimens for a museum exhibit on extinct species, and the idea of feeling utterly lonesome, like the last of one’s kind, recurs: Frederick sits stubbornly on his own at St Sylvan’s, pondering the inevitability of death; Caroline and Jan, both adopted, don’t have the comfort of a family lineage; and the museum specimens whose photographs are dotted through the novel (including the last passenger pigeon, Martha, which also – not coincidentally, I’m sure – was Fred’s wife’s name) represent the end of the line.
I loved pretty much everything about this book: the thematic connections, the gentle sense of humor (especially during Fred and Jan’s expensive restaurant dégustation), the chance for a curmudgeonly protagonist to redeem himself, and the spot-on writing. Highly recommended.
A favorite passage:
“Like many educated people, Frederick had his opinions, most of which were set in concrete so as to render them more akin to truths, but in reality politics and modern history were his weak points – along with poetry. Where poetry and politics were concerned he feared a lack of foundation, which left him vulnerable to challenge. Deep down he knew that opinion – like concrete – was most resilient when well founded and reinforced.”
Like a lot of book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I’ve noticed recently that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. In 2018 I even came across a handful of books that are for me among the very best representatives of their genre, whether that’s nature, travel, family memoir, historical fiction or science fiction. The below selections are in alphabetical order by author name, and account for all the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year (another 27!).
March by Geraldine Brooks (2005): The best Civil War novel I’ve read. The best slavery novel I’ve read. One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read, period. Brooks’s second novel uses Little Women as its jumping-off point but is very much its own story. The whole is a perfect mixture of what’s familiar from history and literature and what Brooks has imagined.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017): The northern Michigan setting pairs perfectly with the novel’s tone of foreboding: you have a sense of these troubled teens being isolated in their clearing in the woods, and from one frigid winter through a steamy summer and into the chill of the impending autumn, they have to figure out what in the world they are going to do with their terrifying freedom. It’s basically a flawless debut, one I can’t recommend too highly.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996): Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013): Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion.
Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007): A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor. This is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation; I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (2017): An ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past. This was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010): Hungarian Jew Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe in 1937–45. It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996): For someone like me who struggles with sci-fi at the best of times, this is just right: the alien beings are just different enough from humans for Russell to make fascinating points about gender roles, commerce and art, but not so peculiar that you have trouble believing in their existence. All of the crew members are wonderful, distinctive characters, and the novel leaves you with so much to think about: unrequited love, destiny, faith, despair, and the meaning to be found in life.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (2015): Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. This is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read; it’s hard to believe it’s Treloar’s debut novel.
Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson (2016): I treated myself to this new paperback edition with part of my birthday book token and it was a perfect read for the week leading up to Christmas. The stories are often fable-like, some spooky and some funny. Most have fantastical elements and meaningful rhetorical questions. Winterson takes the theology of Christmas seriously. A gorgeous book I’ll return to year after year.
Available Light by Marge Piercy (1988): The subjects are diverse: travels in Europe, menstruation, identifying as a Jew as well as a feminist, scattering her father’s ashes, the stresses of daily life, and being in love. Some of my favorites were about selectively adhering to the lessons her mother taught her, how difficult it is for a workaholic to be idle, and wrestling the deity for words.
Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills by Neil Ansell (2011): One of the most memorable nature/travel books I’ve ever read; a modern-day Walden. Ansell’s memoir is packed with beautiful lines as well as philosophical reflections on the nature of the self and the difference between isolation and loneliness.
Boy by Roald Dahl (1984): Pranks and larks and holidays: these are all here; so is crushing homesickness and a bitter sense of injustice at being at the mercy of sadistic adults. Nearly 60 years later, Dahl could use memory and imagination to fully inhabit his childhood self and give a charming survey of the notable events of his life up to age 20.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich (2001): I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek across a frigid island nation in the company of Gretel Ehrlich, who traveled here repeatedly between 1995 and 2001 and intersperses her journeys with those of her historical model, Inuit–Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose seven Arctic expeditions took in the west coast of Greenland and the far north of the North American continent. Every time she finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (2017): It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. I loved it.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (2017): A charming introduction to 99 more or less obscure writers. Each profile is a perfectly formed mini-biography with a survey of the author’s major work: in just two or three pages, Fowler is able to convey all a writer’s eccentricities and why their output is still worth remembering.
To the Is-Land: An Autobiography by Janet Frame (1982): This is some of the best writing about childhood and memory that I’ve ever read, infused with music, magic and mystery. The prose alternates between dreamy and matter-of-fact as Frame describes growing up in New Zealand one of five children in the Depression and interwar years.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (2015): This poignant sequel to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a portrait of Fuller’s two-decade marriage, from its hopeful beginnings to its acrimonious end. What I most appreciated about the book was Fuller’s sense of being displaced: she no longer feels African, but nor does she feel American.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942): Markham writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds. Whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison (1993): An extraordinary memoir based around the author’s relationship with his father. Alternating chapters give glimpses into earlier family life and narrate Morrison’s father’s decline and death from cancer. This is simply marvelously written, not a bad line in the whole thing.
The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson (2017): This is an extraordinarily well-written and -researched book (a worthy Wainwright Prize winner) about the behavior, cultural importance, and current plight of the world’s seabirds. Each chapter takes up a different species and dives deep into everything from its anatomy to the legends surrounding it, simultaneously conveying the playful, intimate real lives of the birds and their complete otherness.
The Long Goodbye: A Memoir of Grief by Meghan O’Rourke (2011): I read a whole lot of bereavement memoirs; this has been one of the very best. O’Rourke tells her story with absolute clarity – a robust, plain-speaking style that matches her emotional transparency. The heart of the book is her mother’s death from colorectal cancer on Christmas Day 2008, but we also get a full picture of the family life that preceded it and the first couple of years of aftermath.
Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry (2017): Eighteen and a half thousand people died in the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011. It’s not really possible to get your head around a tragedy on that scale so, wisely, Parry focuses on a smaller story within the story: 74 died at Okawa primary school because the administration didn’t have a sufficient disaster plan in place. This is a stunning portrait of a resilient people, but also a universal story of the human spirit facing the worst.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen (2012): A splendid memoir-in-essays that dwells on aging, parenting and female friendship. Some of its specific themes are marriage, solitude, the randomness of life, the process of growing into your own identity, and the special challenges her generation (roughly my mother’s) faced in seeking a work–life balance. Her words are witty and reassuring, and cut right to the heart of the matter in every case.
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin (2009): Probably the best self-help book I’ve read; dense (in the best possible way) with philosophy, experience and advice. What I appreciated most is that her approach is not about undertaking extreme actions to try to achieve happiness, but about finding contentment in the life you already have by adding or tweaking small habits – especially useful for pessimists like me.
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult by Rebecca Stott (2017): This was a perfect book for my interests, and just the kind of thing I would love to write someday. It’s a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to pancreatic cancer and eliciting her promise to help finish his languishing memoir; it’s a family memoir that tracks generations through England, Scotland and Australia; and it’s a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a Christian sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave.
Writers & Company by Eleanor Wachtel (1993): Erudite and fascinating author interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.
And if I really had to limit myself to just two books – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be March by Geraldine Brooks and And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison.
There is a state between life and death: it’s called the waxworks.
Apparently the 4th was Super Thursday: 544 books were published in the UK as part of the autumn rush leading up to Christmas. I’ve read just one of those multitudinous releases so far, but what a corker it was. Little is Edward Carey’s deliciously macabre novel about Madame Tussaud, who starts life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761 and loses both parents by the age of six. Known as Marie, she soon picks up the nickname “Little” at the studio where she helps Dr. Philip Curtius make wax anatomical models. When the indebted Curtius flees to Paris, Marie goes with him as his servant. Along with their landlady, a tailor’s widow named Charlotte Picot, and her son Edmond, they form a makeshift family and a successful business, making wax heads and then dressing them in wigs and clothes to create whole figures of (in)famous citizens to display in their new quarters, a former monkey house.
In the years to come Marie occupies an uncomfortable in-between position: she’s treated like a servant but never paid, and though she’s fond of Curtius and falls in love with Edmond she’s made to understand that she’s not their equal. However, her fortunes change when Princess Élisabeth, on an unannounced visit to the Cabinet of Dr. Curtius, is impressed with Marie’s art and anatomy skills and invites her to be her sculpture tutor at Versailles. Marie and the young royal make wax models of local peasants’ ailments so they can pray for them. By the time Marie returns to the monkey house, the Revolution is in full swing and there’s widespread hunger not just for wax heads in cabinets, but for real decapitated ones. It will take cunning and luck for Marie and her odd little family to survive the years of upheaval.
(For a look inside the book, go to https://www.book2look.com/book/H8skBPiuJ9.)
The grimy picture of eighteenth-century Paris reminded me of Pure by Andrew Miller, and I often thought of Dickens as I was reading. Little starts off most like David Copperfield: a first-person “I am born”-style account with each chapter headed by a pithy summary. The characters have exaggerated physical features and recurring verbal tics, and there is an unmistakable message that whether a royal or a lowly servant we are all the same inside. Of course, as that pivotal July 14th approaches, the Dickensian echo is more along the lines of A Tale of Two Cities.
I think the novel would benefit from a more suggestive title and could stand to be a bit shorter, but it’s still a delightful piece of historical fiction and another hit from Gallic Books, responsible for two of my other favorite reads of the year so far, Salt Creek and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. Part of the joy of reading it is encountering Carey’s slightly grotesque black-and-white illustrations, dozens of which appear through the text; you can see a few more of them on the postcards that accompanied my review copy.
In fact, I’ll sheepishly admit that before I read this I had Edward Carey confused for Edward Gorey, who was known for his ghoulish black-and-white drawings. Carey, an English playwright and novelist whose previous books include the Iremonger Trilogy, is married to Elizabeth McCracken and teaches at the University of Austin, Texas. After university he worked as a steward at Madame Tussaud’s in London, which is how he first came across her story. It’s an unforgettable one.
With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Mr Peacock’s Possessions, Lydia Syson’s first novel for adults, will be published in the UK by Zaffre on May 17th. You might think of it as a cross between Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek. Set in the late 1870s in New Zealand and Oceania, it’s the story of the Peacock family, who settled on Monday Island two years ago, believing it would be their own “piece of paradise.” Mr Peacock is a self-assured man of many schemes. One day fifteen-year-old Lizzie spots a ship, and a Pacific Islander jumps off it and swims ashore. This is Kalala, who learned English and gentlemanly manners from “Mr Reverend” and narrates his chapters in a charming patois. He’s here to help with manual labour, but Mr Peacock unsettles him: “he goes from light to dark like a forest walk,” as his family knows all too well. The novel is based loosely on Syson’s husband’s family history.
Today as part of the blog tour I have an extract from Kalala’s narration as he approaches the island.
In water once more, all my limbs are joyful, and my ears too, joyful with bubbling whoosh, all sluice and surge and flow, a dulled and busy quietness which is never silence. Eyes open in infinite blue. A slow-winging turtle rises. I rise myself, for air, and sink again. The sea argues: back and forth, it tests me sorely – but I know these tricks and tumbles, and I have power enough in mind and body to work these waves to my delight.
Head up and out.
The shore approaches.
I am down and under, and now give way and let the water roller me in – the rocks cry out a warning – I swim sideways with all my ebbing strength – so fast so fast – and then a mighty power throws me down, hard, in whiteness. Yet I claw for life with so much longing that nothing can pull me back. Fiercely I fight – my enemy, my friend – the suck of it, guzzling and gulping at my legs. Ploughing and pushing, now in air, gasping, now under foam, I launch my body and dive for land.
My bellowing back ups and downs, unasked. My chest is first fast and roaring, then slower and slower still. Smallest of stones print my face, embed their heat in all my body. Ears whine and sing. Foam flicks and waves reach, rush, drag at my feet, trying to lure me back into water, over and again, but I resist the sea’s entreaties, crawl from its hungry reach. My head hammers and hums and stars whirl brightly in my closed eyes. I wait for all to slow, for glow to dim, for land to cease its tipping.
And then I raise my head and look up and down the beach. Nobody. Spume slides slowly on flat wet sand where sky and clouds lie spread and wrinkled. Some scattered rocks. So much sand. On and on and on all along the shore. Out of the sea’s reach, the land dries and lightens, stretches up to a wall of rock, grass at bottom and green bushes tipping from on top. Not so high you could not climb it. There will be holes for fingers and toes in the red-brown lumps and chunks. Or I will find another way to reach the houses and the children. When I can breathe. I hardly can hold my head up yet.
Thud. Thud. Thud. As this thumping lulls in head and heart, I gather strength. Here I am, Monday Island. I have come as commanded. Now it is for you to make good your promise.
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Mr Peacock’s Possessions. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Salt Creek is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read. All the harder, then, to believe that it’s Lucy Treloar’s debut novel. Since its initial release in Australia in 2015, it has gone on to be shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and the Miles Franklin Award for Australian novels. We have Claire McAlpine of Word by Word to thank for helping this book find a publisher in the UK. I can particularly recommend it to fans of The Essex Serpent and English Passengers, and there are also resonances with Rebecca Winterer’s Australia-setThe Singing Ship.
Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. Her luckless father tried whaling in Adelaide before turning to cheese-making as his next far-fetched money-making venture. From Quaker stock, Papa believed the natives should be well treated and even all but adopted an aboriginal boy named Tully, getting him to bathe and wear clothes and educating him alongside his seven children. However, as Hester hints starting early on in the novel, having a white family monopolizing resources put an impossible strain on relations with the natives.
It seems an inevitable irony of reviewing – or maybe it’s just me? – that the books you love the most are the hardest to write about. However can I do this book justice? I wonder about lots of 5-star books. It’s easier to put together a review when you have some mixture of positive and negative things to say, but I have no faults to find with Salt Creek. It flawlessly evokes its time period and somewhat bleak setting. Hester’s narration is as lyrical as it is nostalgic and matter-of-fact, and I sympathized with her desperation not to be drawn into a Victorian housewife’s cycle of endless pregnancies. The characterization is spot on, especially for figures like Papa or Tully who could have easily been reduced to stereotypes.
Most of all, this is the piercing story of a clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs. You might think notions of dominion and looking after ‘poor natives’ are outdated, but just listen in to what particular groups have to say about the environment and intervention abroad and you’ll realize that this is as relevant as ever. Salt Creek comes with my highest recommendation.
Some favorite lines:
“Poor Papa. He pitted himself against the land, yet it was impervious to all his learning and effort and incantatory prayers. The land had its own drives and they ran against Papa’s, blunting all his purposes.”
“I would not have a baby or that would be my life. There would be another and another and nothing left of my self; my life being decided for me.”
“Memories are just the survivors of complete events and are not easy to interpret; in the recalling they can be used to create a story that is only partially true or not true at all.”
“It seemed as if every part of the lagoon had a name and a story and a meaning. The stories were all around us wherever we went. There was scarcely a place without one and it felt as if we were nothing but one more story inside this world and the stories were without number.”
“The longer I looked the more that impression of civilization seemed an illusion.”
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.