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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The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
It is Renaissance Florence, and Lucrezia de’ Medici is married off at the age of 13 to Alfonso, 23, the dashing, wealthy Duke of Ferrara. She’d met him once, when he was engaged to her older sister and he passed her on a walk. Their eyes met and they both felt cupid’s arrow. When the sister dies, Lucrezia gets the call.
The plot line and characters sound straight out of some Mills-and-Boon-type romance but the comparison ends there. This is a superbly written novel with gloriously textured descriptions and some pretty luscious history, and the hate him/love him of popular romance is reversed; the sweet romancer turning into a chilling murderer. The child bride can’t make sense of her husband, the dashing Duke Alfonzo who is intuitive and caring to Lucrezia one minute, and brutally cruel the next. The family needs an heir – as they always do, without ever having a plan B – and Alfonzo takes to his task with dedication. Gentle and caring at first, and then not so much. He is fighting to maintain his throne and his family is part of the power play.
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Through the Lonseome Dark, by Paddy Richardson
It’s the early 1900s and Pansy is living poor on the West Coast in Blackball, which apparently is a charming town these days. Pansy’s a smart kid. Smarter than her pa. Today you’d hope this would be a positive thing and she would be given every opportunity to make use of her talents, to be educated and offered the chances that would help a small town girl rise to fulfill her potential. You’d hope that someone would notice the bruising on her face and not turn away.
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The Reindeer Hunters, by Lars Mytting
It’s been a while since I read The Bell in the Lake (which I loved). The Reindeer Hunters is the second in Mytting’s Sister Bells trilogy and I do recommend you read/refresh the opening novel first, mainly because it’s so damn good but also because this next would be hard to navigate without the earlier history of the Stave Church and how it came to be in Dresden and what happened to Astrid and the bells and who were the Henke Sisters…and so on. It is a complicated plot spanning a few generations and secrets.
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Oratamin meets Stuyvesant
In the Natural History Museum in New York is a diorama that has two shots at telling history, emphasising the fluidity of historiography. It’s an unexpected display in a nation that seems to have a very strong idea of its historical story, with legends of the founding fathers and the war of independence and the civil war circulating ad infinitum. This is a culture that celebrates success. And yet, here is evidence in prime position of this great national institution that states: we got this wrong.
Continue reading “Reimagining a colonial past in Manhattan”
Catching the Current, by Jenny Pattrick
If you have read and enjoyed Jenny Pattrick’s latest, Harbouring, do go for a romp around her backlist. They’re consistently good. I’ve just reread Catching the Current and enjoyed it the second time around even more than in 2005 when it was first published.
This is a prequel to Denniston Rose, but reads as a stand-alone story based on the early life of Faroe Islander, Conrad Rasmussen—known to Denniston fans as Con the Brake. He’s tall, fair and handsome, playful, talkative, a renowned singer and teller of tales, and pretty full of himself. He excels at everything he turns his hand to, a man not to be ignored. He’s quick to temper and loyal to his friends—a lover, a hero.
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Worse things happen at sea, by John McCrystal
Worse things happen at sea is probably the most appropriate book title ever. Whatever catastrophe happens on land you can crank up the Richter scale of disaster if it happens out on the briny. Flood, fire, psychopath, injury, grandstanding, storm, starvation, getting lost – put a ship in the background of any of these and they become so, so much worse.
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Harbouring, by Jenny Pattrick
I’ll admit to being nervous in approaching this book. I love Jenny Pattrick’s rousing stories of colonial New Zealand communities and I’ve walked through the mud with her characters. Like many others I was introduced to her books through Denniston Rose and Heart of Coal and Denniston became part of my mental map. The same thing happened with Landings, and Catching the Current. Pattrick offers lively characters as guides to explore our colonial history.
Her new book, Harbouring, is set amid the NZ Company’s arrival in Wellington and the establishment of the colony there. Hence the nerves. Two years ago I published Jerningham. It’s the same story, wrought from the same material. What would an expert storyteller like Pattrick make of it?
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Diving for gold and buttons
Mrs Jewell & the Wreck of the General Grant is the story of the survivors of this most famous of shipwrecks. In 1866 the General Grant, carrying miners, their families and gold home from Melbourne struck towering cliffs that reared out of the sea at night. She was sucked into a cave and sank. Fourteen men and one woman (Mrs Jewell) made it ashore on the remote, sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands where they lived as castaways for eighteen months. This is the base for my new novel, due in June with Cuba Press, best-guessing to fill gaps in the survivors’ testimonies and reading between the lines in the context of the times and situation. Everything we know about the story has been told to us by the survivors and despite numerous searches along that wild coast for over 150 years, the ship and her gold has never been found.
But—and here we go again with history reasserting itself— that might be about to change. For that I blame swashbuckling shipwreck fanatic, Bill Day.
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