The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall
I’ve just spent a year writing a book about castaways on a remote, southern New Zealand island in the early 1860s and sent it off for consideration, when a friend told me about Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of My Condition, set about 50 years earlier on the Snares, with seals and storms and miserable conditions. I almost died. She’s already written my story – I wailed.
But of course, she hadn’t. There is more than one story set in the frozen southern oceans and many ways to tell ’em.
Randall’s is based on a true story of four convict men who have escaped Norfolk penal colony, without much planning or foresight, stowing away on a sealing ship. The captain drops them on a desolate island with a trypot and some basic necessities and tells them to collect a payment of seal skins. He’ll pick them up in a year. The felons are so pleased to be free of the jail that this seems a reasonable exchange. A decade passes.
Is there a genre called Atmospheric Historic? If so, Pure, by Andrew Miller must be near the top. Set in an overflowing Parisian necropolis in 1785 this novel is so packed with creepy images and smells and sounds you need to hold your nose as you submerge.
This is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer given a government contract during an impersonal meeting at Versailles. He is tasked with clearing out the cemetery and church of Les Innocents, which is so ancient and in such bad repair it taints the air in Les Halles. A subterranean wall has collapsed and the stinking effluent of centuries of rotten things is leaking onto the streets, a metaphor if ever there was. They will clear the city of the stench of the past and pave the way for a grand new future. Jean-Baptiste takes a room adjoining the cemetery, where the breath of his hosts carry the smell of the dead.
Yes, you should probably read this because it is lyrical and lovely and is the story of Shakespeare’s dying son Hamnet, who he (apparently) honours as Hamlet, in a round about way which may be stretching the truth somewhat.
O’Farrell writes passages of such amazingly close detail that I felt my heartbeat slow in the reading. She spends one whole page describing a woman walking two steps. It’s extraordinary.
Definitely my book of the year so far. I’m a Keneally fan (since Schindler’s Ark all those years ago) and a Dickens fan with a keen interest in Victorians and colonial history and here’s The Dickens Boy with all that wrapped up in a gloriously written novel. Keneally is a master storyteller with characters I can really care about and a honesty that makes me believe that everything here could be true (and quite a lot of it seems to be). Just goes to show you don’t need clever literary devices or pretentious language to write a captivating book, you just need to tell a bloody good story.
This is a book club book if you are a group of readers with a fanatical interest in the minutiae of colonial immigration in the 1850s. In which case, I salute you. Invite me along to join you, sometime.
Veitch, though, might be a bit much of an enthusiast, even for me. The cover and title promises a book set on the high seas but there is way more than that. Most of the detail is of the societal conditions and politics behind the immigrations: the Wakefields, the lure of colonial wool and gold, the Scottish clearances. There is a full chapter about the Birkenhead emigration depot in Liverpool where the passengers collected before departure and the last quarter of the book covers the crisis in immigration that followed the ship’s arrival in Port Phillip and its quarantine.
I love a good YA fiction that goes deep, and The Telegram by Philippa Werry certainly delivers. A young reader will enjoy the story of Beatrice cycling around her small kiwi town on her bike, changing from a schoolgirl to a young woman with the harrowing responsibility of delivering telegrams during the first world war. She makes and loses friends, delivers news of celebration and (more often) tragedy to families, writes letters as she waits for the boy next door to return from the front, and celebrates the war’s end just as the ‘flu rolls into town. Continue reading “The Telegram – book review”
We launched my novel Jerningham this week to coincide with the young Wakefield’s 200th birthday. The book launch in Wellington was at Unity Books and it felt so right: beneath our feet in colonial times was the beach, before all the infill began. Jerningham would have leapt ashore from the whale boats right there onto the shingly sand, walked along the beach to Dicky Barrett’s pub and ordered a bottle of his favourite Hokinaga red. I had been a bit worried that no one would come out to help celebrate but there was a good crowd, in a big part because of our three wonderful kids who brought along every friend who had ever sat at our table over the years and made them buy a book. They probably came for the wine, but that’s ok. It was Decibel. Can’t blame them.
Then we moved up to Hawkes Bay and had a bit of fun dressing up like Victorians at Duart House. Decibel again sponsored the wine along with Maison Noire so we were guaranteed a good turn out. People drank local, read local and our local Wardini Books sold the book.
To all those who came along, thank you very much. And what did I tell you? Everyone looks better in a top hat (though the ladies rocked the flowers, too)
Colonial Wellington’s original wild boy, Jerningham Wakefield, was born 200 years ago today. The son of New Zealand Company founder Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Jerningham was a member of the advance party of the Wellington colony, arriving in Port Nicholson on the Tory in September 1839. He was nineteen years old and sent away from England by his father to keep him out of mischief. It was a mistake Edward Gibbon probably came to regret.
Norway, 1880. So cold a woman leaned against a wall in church and froze to death, her skin stuck to the wall. No wonder my ancestors left. I love stories like this that are so atmospheric you need to wrap yourself in a blanket to read them.
Jerningham Wakefield and the first colonial settlement of Wellington
I walked into a bookshop yesterday and my book was on the counter. Does an author ever get used to that? Felt like the first day out with a new baby. They cooed over me in the shop and asked me to sign the copies.