So continues my love/meh relationship with Ian McEwan. There’s no doubt this is a huge book, a deep immersion into an Englishman’s life from childhood to old age. Our narrator, Roland, is a decade-and-a-half older than me so what happened in his formative years went on to form me. Ian McEwan covers all the big political issues of those years through Roland’s eyes, from war-damaged parents and Arab nationalism to the threat of nuclear destruction, the Gorbachev years and the end of the cold war, women’s liberation, Thatcher, Major, and then Blair’s Britain (remember that huge positivity that the world was, finally, coming right?), and on to financial crises, corporate greed, global warming and covid. McEwan/Roland is intelligent, left-wing and an interesting political commentator. The problem is, though I think I probably like McEwan, I don’t like Roland at all.
Roland is eleven, sent away by his parents to boarding school (his father, the Captain, had them stationed in Lybia with the army) is kissed and fondled by his piano teacher, a woman a decade older who wears a seductive perfume. He is confused and awakened and a few years after the lessons cease he goes willingly, seeking her out, desperate to have sex before the world ends in nuclear destruction. He cannot die a virgin. This is the most obvious lesson in this Book of Lessons, and we see his self-destructive life path in the aftermath of this abuse. He learns other lessons from his parents, the way a mother can abandon a child to keep a marriage or hide a secret, and also from his wife, who vanishes in the second chapter leaving Roland to raise their child alone. A husband and child would cramp her style, she says and tells him not to look for her.
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We seem to have been waiting such a long time for this book. Kāwai is truly groundbreaking and I hope that it clears the way for more stories in this historical and cultural setting. So what’s the big deal with Kāwai and why has it been so phenomenally successful?
Firstly, no one has published such an epic saga of Māori life before, and the timing now is impeccable. It seems Soutar has been coming all his life to be writing this story now (for such a time as this), when not only does he have the necessary contacts and learning and experience, but there is an audience with a huge appetite for stories and discussions of our history and people. Just look at how the bestsellers lists over the past three or four years have been dominated by things Māori. We’re open and primed for a big, readable Māori story that would have been unthinkable twenty, even ten years ago. And here it is and it’s fascinating.
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Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver
Yes, yes, yes. Can Barbra Kingsolver write yet another ground-breakingly brilliant novel? Can this intellectual powerhouse of a woman, at 67, write convincingly as a troubled, drug addled, abused orphaned boy? And finally: how on earth does she do this – is she a shape-shifter? As to the question: do you have to read David Copperfield first to understand Demon Copperhead? The answer is no. The book stands on its own, the nod to Dickens a realisation that the societal blindness of 170 years ago hasn’t changed. The bottom of the pile still stinks.
Hillbillies. They’re a bit of a joke, surely? It’s an historical term for unsophisticated, rural folk who live in the boondocks and marry their cousins. This story takes us there, into the hills of Lee County, Virginia, to the deprivations of trailer-life poverty and a boy, Damon, growing up hungry in a fully dysfunctional life. They try to own the word “hillbilly” but it still owns them.
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This is a family story where an off-the-rails daughter living in a caravan gives birth to a fish. Our narrator (first person, never named, so I’ll call him the Fish’s uncle) is pretty clear about this. The thing being held up to be admired is an oddity, slightly revolting, not quite human. A thing with a gulping lips, a rubbery mouth. With gills, and an overwhelming fishy smell. What kind of creature the baby is we never really learn and this makes the whole story intensely curious. Although the Fish’s uncle refers to ‘it’ and ‘the Fish’ or ‘our Fish’ throughout, the others give it a masculine pronoun and the Fish is named after his grandfather, Colin Montgomery. The Fish grows up and goes to school, leaves school, goes to work in the family junk yard, goes on holiday. He may be a boy with some kind of horrendous congenital disability or the horror may belong to the view of the Fish’s uncle but we, the readers, are unwillingly (for me, anyway) made complicit in the relegation of the Fish to ‘freak’. The Fish is part of the family and loved even, with a kind of every-family-has-its-cross-to bear embarrassment, but an object who is is given no internal life of his own. We meet him as onlookers – never communicate directly with him, never try to understand.
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A Fish in the Swim of the World, by Ben Brown
Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.
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The Promise, by Damon Galgut
Like I often say with the Booker – read the shortlist.
I didn’t find any joy in this novel. It is set in South Africa in the 1980s as apartheid falls apart, but we don’t venture out into the country much. The action, such as it is, concerns a white family who live on a farm. The characters are all unlikeable. The only one with any shred of decency is the youngest daughter, Amor, who cannot stand up for her beliefs and opts out, not only of the family but also, by being so damn wet, pretty much out of her own life as well. To call her uncharismatic is being kind. She is moderately interesting because she was struck by lightening as a child and lost a toe, but that’s about it. She’s absent for most of the book.
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Under a Big Sky, by Tim Saunders
I’ve been back with Tim and his family for another farm holiday and it’s been great. I spent about a week in the book this time, not much has changed since I met them all in This Farming Life, but I think I will always enjoy the shepherds dragging astonished sheep from their pens for a morning shear and the way the magpies gargle with laughter when his dad tells a joke, and the big bird, Kāhu, who clutches the new day in rust coloured talons. These are the author’s expressions, of course. Who else could write so evocatively about daily life on a farm?
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Prianesi, by Susanna Clarke
“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule.” As a first sentence that’s a big turn off for someone jaded by fantasy. But the book was recommended by my friend Tess, who is a sensible woman and a journalist and unlikely to send me off to some hokey warring kingdoms where women with shining braids and medieval gowns face boy warriors with superpowers who are battling some evil psycho. Happy to say this turned out to be one of the most original novels I’ve read since…oh, lets go back a lifetime to John Fowles’s The Magus. But without the horror.
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Slow Down, You’re Here, by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Well, there’s a lesson in this narrative. Mothers, stay home with your children. If you stray from the natural order a ghastly comeuppance will be visited upon you.
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Down from Upland, by Murdoch Stephens
This is one of those books that is so close to home it hits the cringe spot and makes me judder all over. I don’t mean the bit about the open marriage, but geographically. Kelburn. This is my childhood and these are my people and not much has changed over the years. Stephens nails it. There were families like this back in the 70s, where the parents thought they were cool and liberal and who massively over-shared with their kids in a way that was hideously embarrassing. Poor teenage Axle is trying to be accepted at Wellington High, (he left College because of bullying, so no change there, either) while at the same time accepting mum’s boyfriend sleeping over while dad’s male lover gate-crashes. And his father, who can down five passive aggressive bottles with his wife’s young squeeze, ‘helps’ Axle negotiate parties and sex and alcohol by lecturing him, grounding him or buying him a shopping trolley of low alcohol beer, so the lad can ‘fit in’ at parties without getting smashed. There are some great scenes where the lads, naturally, run experiments on getting drunk on low alcohol beer.
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