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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Greta & Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly
This is so refreshing for a New Zealand book—hooray for getting away from the cliché that all kiwis are boring monoglot parochials. Here’s a great new cast of characters, a whole blended extended Vladisavljevic whanau of Russian, Māori, Catalans, some other eastern Europeans I think – Romanian? There’s a complicated relationship with this lot, academics and students at Auckland Uni woven around the main unit of Greta and her brother Valdin, who are our storytellers. I’ve never met people like them but wish I had. The dinner time conversations are epic. ‘The first time I brought you round to my parents’ house I told everyone to act like regular people and V threw the remote out the window so no one could change the channel from Eurovision and a squid had exploded on my dad at work.’ There’s a confusing series of relationships across the group, bi, straight and gay—an uncle’s husband’s brother is the boyfriend of Valdin and a brother-in-law’s husband a straight ex-lover (ex?). I had to draw a curly family tree to get it straight. Like life. It’s complicated.
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All the light we cannot see, by Anthony Doerr
This is another war story (they are so unavoidable). It’s the story about the frog in the pot of water: the one where the frog will jump out of boiling water, but won’t take action if the heat is applied slowly, and so cooks. Here it’s used as a metaphor for complacency as the Germans move in and occupy France, and also, I think, of the German people themselves becoming immune to the violence building in their own country. Interesting in that we are invited to have sympathy for both the main characters as victims of war, even though one is a blind French girl and the other a partly radicalised Nazi youth. If you’ve wondered how nice kids were turned into Nazis, here it suggests they were put in the pot when the water was cool and inviting, and were cooked from the inside out.
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All our Shimmering Skies, by Trent Dalton
Like the gorgeously lush cover, this book is almost too sumptuously overgrown with luxuriant succulents to be true. If that sounds a mouthful, you should read Dalton’s descriptions of the Australian outback.
Molly, our spunky but naive child heroine, walks away from the bombing of Darwin and I was expecting Australian desert. But she walks through many variations of the cover picture. “… a stand of black wattles and soap trees with flat round black fruits and then down an avenue of trees with mottled cream-grey bark and stiff leaves exploding with small ripe red fruits. These tree clusters are all canopied by a dense climbing vine with orange-yellow flowers shaped like starfish …” I’m wondering what to make of this dreamy psychedelic landscape and the vividness of the descriptions, which are offered in stark contrast to the city in the background. The voice is often passive: “Seen from the orange-red sky above and looking down and closer in and closer in, they are three wanderers crossing a vivid floodplain cut by sinuous rivers and wide freshwater channels dotted with lily-fringed waterholes. The sun low and honeyed.” (Love that repetition and the honeyed sun.)
It seems a strange response to trauma. Unexpected, perhaps intriguing.
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Dear Vincent, by Mandy Hager
In a dysfunctional family, Tara McClusky grows up isolated. There is no other kid in school who has to spoon feed and change her father, work in a retirement home to help pay the basics and tip-toe around a mother who seems to have no instinct to mother. Her mum works nights, so they cross paths without ever really communicating, in a perfunctory routine. “‘How was school?’ ‘Okay.’ We’ve got this pseudo-Mass thing going on, where Mum chants through her litany and I respond with practised care. It doesn’t pay to go off-script.” There are no hugs or comfort. Tara’s older sister has died after being sent away to family in Ireland to sort herself out. She had gone wild: promiscuous and druggy. But she was always a tower of love to Tara and now she has gone.
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Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
Oh my God. It’s true. This extraordinary story of Eli Bell growing up in suburban Brisbane amid drug addicts and gangs and criminals and the poignancy of children making sense of the mess…this is based on his life. Trent Dalton’s. The mother he loves so much he breaks into prison to be with her at Christmas. The best friend, Slim, who shares his stories of Boggo Road prison and may (or may not) have murdered a cabbie. The Vietnamese Golden Triangle heroin dealers and their hit men. Might be easier to read not knowing these things were based on a real life.
I SO love this book. It has that rare bit of genius that I search for in fiction: a mixture of quirky but believable characters, a story that grows, an unusual setting (actually, I hated the setting), and writing so sharp it makes you bleed.
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Sally Rooney is my new discovery. Sure, I’m behind the play on this one, the last two years have seen her plastered with awards. Don’t ask me why she is so good, I find it hard to say why I find the lives of twenty something Irish students and their friends so compelling. They don’t go on adventures or do remarkable things. Their journeys are mostly internal and all about relationships. They’re going through the pretty mundane stuff of growing up, involving incidents that you’ll probably recognise, things that you or your friends might have struggled with.
The two books are similar, each with the main character a very bright girl at university in Dublin, with family issues pulling her emotional strings and intense friendships. Continue reading “Converstations with Friends & Normal People – book reviews”