Birds without wings – book review

Birds without wings by Louis de Bernières

God, this is horrific. If you’re looking for a sweet but deep sequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is what the bloke in our book club thought he was giving us, this is way out of your depth.

This is Turkey before, during and after WWI, the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t voluntarily read war stories, but this was for book club and having been brought up on the glorious allies, I was interested to read the perspective of the other side’s glorious allies. But I was sickened by the brutality and inhumanity in this story. De Bernières writes with such clarity and perception there are images painted in my head I will never wipe clean. Continue reading “Birds without wings – book review”

The art of letter writing

Shipwrecks in cross-hatch

I spent a happy day in the Alexander Turnbull Library yesterday researching colonial goings on, and discovered that, in the 1850s, lots happened by letter. Introductions, demands, gossip, flirtations. News of shipwrecks and love wrecks and conflicts and strife. Thank-yous for gifts, shared notes on botany and invitations to the Governor’s ball.

These were original letters to hold carefully, from Governor and Lady Grey, Governor Fitzroy, colonial secretaries and adventurers and all their various correspondents. I found their loopy writing both marvellous and completely illegible.  There’s a skill or art to deciphering them that I think might require many hours. Luckily, most had transcripts into fuzzy typewritery courier – still a few generations behind the digital.

The Victorians wrote with great sweep and flourish, with confident and well practiced hands. Paper was precious, and yet they had very large writing on small pages, I’m guessing because they were using unwieldy nib pens and ink which needed long continuous strokes.  In order to economise they often cross-hatched, creating intricate designs of patterned penmanship, slanting gracefully across the page one way and another.

Today there seems to be an accepted truth that hand written letters are different to screen or typed letters. Do we believe a hand written love letter carries more love?  I think so. These weren’t love letters I was studying at the library, but there was a spooky intensity in them that I’ve never felt from a transcript. There has been a recent  resurgence in interest in letter writing – in the non-digital generally – but I don’t think the art will come back. These cross-hatched masterpieces are relics of a slower time, and when has a culture reverted to the less convenient?

A day wandering through a collection of 19th Century letters is moving and strangely restorative – it’s like time spent in an art gallery where stories and art come together as a whole.

 

The Captive Wife – book review

The captive wife, by Fiona Kidman

This is a whale of a tale set in the days when a whaler could take a child bride to a remote New Zealand whaling station – when marauding war parties, cannibalism and shipwreck were common and life was fragile – and he could wonder why it all went so wrong.

Fiona Kidman’s The captive wife is a real New Zealand legend.   Jackie Guard was 40 when he married the spunky 14 year old Betty and took her from the Garrison town of Sydney to the whalers’ den of Te Awaiti in the Malborough Sounds.  Theirs is a real history and journals and letters of the time often mention them, particularly after the events recounted in this book that turn Betty into a bit of a celebrity.

Of course things often do go wrong, in a number of ways, but the main action of the story is based on a shipwreck when the Guards are returning to the station after a trip to Sydney and are smashed up on the Taranaki Coast. This is in 1834, before Governor Hobson and the Wakefields, before any kind of systematic colonisation of New Zealand or any semblance of British law, when the only force driving the foreigners in the country was exploitation.  The castaways are attacked, many killed and Betty and her children are captured by the Ngāti Ruanui Māori.

Jacky Guard is released to bring a ransom, but returns four months later on the Royal Navy’s man-o’-war Alligator from Sydney and a captain hell bent on teaching the Māori a lesson. This is England’s first armed conflict with Māori, and we are still learning from the lesson today. 

I guess you want to know what happened to Betty in those four months she spent in captivity, the book is called the captive wife, after all.  Well, first she witnessed the cannibalism of her murdered crewmen. And then she was struck by a tomahawk, which was deflected by a comb in her hair (so the legend goes, and you can view both the comb and Jacky Guard’s pistol at Te Papa) then her infant son was taken from her to be trained in Māori ways. And then … well, things changed.  She fell under the protection of a chief called Oaoiti who was kind to her and a man in extreme contrast to her rather nasty husband Jacky…

The story starts, like most stories of the time, with a male voice, and Jackie is wondering where he can lay his poker. But soon we hear Betty’s voice and female viewpoint, and later she tells her story to an older, sympathetic friend. I really like the duality of this, she and Jackie have very different eyes on the same world.

The research Fiona Kidman has done for this book is spanking and I never doubt that the fictionalised parts could well have happened in that time and place, though the telling of the story is often deliberately one-sided and told by unreliable, limited or misunderstood narrators.  The complexity of the telling sure make this a great read and I highly recommend it for an intelligent slap of New Zealand’s wild history.

If  The captive wife is a suggestion for a book club read, Elizabeth Welsh of Auckland University gives an excellent academic summary review on the themes, metaphors and perspectives here: The captive wife. But do read the book first.

Beware the Thesaurus

How to ride a thesaurus

A thesaurus can be a marvelous animal to help find an appropriate word for your writing, the perfect little word to contain everything you’re trying to say elegantly and so simply your readers will understand immediately the mot juste.

The Economist’s vocab survey of 2013 says most native English speakers have a vocabulary of 20,000–35,000 words which seems a lot to choose from without needing to reach for a thesaurus.  Readers (particularly fiction readers) will have a much wider vocabulary than non-readers, see below.  If you want to write with an authentic voice, the word in your head is usually the best.

Writers, I know, often have an inbuilt thesaurus, but this is a very personal thing. Innocuous word such as “member” or “lay” will flash different alternatives in the lexicon of a parliamentary writer and a writer of bodice-rippers, and I mean flash there in the sense of display, not flaunt, show off, or expose one’s genitals.

For most of us, good writing is about taking words out. Edit until a thought is clear on the page, and perhaps then a thesaurus might help with precision.

Tame your thesaurus and use him to gobble up your prose and spit only the good bits out, perfectly regurgitated.  Never ride your thesaurus at a gallop. Walk him through your writing in reverse, to condense long, complicated descriptions into clean, tight text.

You are not in a confrontational predicament on meeting a Thesaurus in the wild. You’re in the shit.

Vocabulary by age reading habit.jpg

economist.com/johnson/2013/05/29/lexical-facts

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – Book Review

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets, by Fiona Farrell

If you’re a library browser, pick this one up – although in the Hastings City Library you’ll have to look in the Science Fiction category (and I’m not sure whether to be the smart-arse and tell them or not).

Fiona Farrell’s Mr Allbones’ Ferrets is lovely historical fiction set in my favourite era, mid-19th Century, when those Victorians were exporting their exuberant passions all over the globe and wreaking havoc on the balance of things.

It’s a strangely paced book – all build up to the journey, and then the shock and resolution is hasty. Farrell wrote this over a decade (and many books) ago and I’ll review her latest book next (Decline and Fall on Savage Street) which is a masterpiece of pace – though again, unconventional.

There’s lots of unconventionality to enjoy in Mr Allbone. He is a young poacher and his speciality is ferrets, which he uses to flush out rabbits for the pot. He has a clutch of young ‘uns at home to feed – brothers and sisters. His mother lies beneath the wild garlic outside St Peter’s wall (a typically understated, but telling phrase). Along with the nest at home Allbones himself is ferret-like; a “skinny lad, the runt of the litter who had grown quick and cunning and able to squeeze his way though any gap or cranny, scaling soffit and drainpipe, up trees, under hedges.”

Farrell gives us lots of fascinating detail about ferret life: catching, keeping, illnesses and breeding. Lots about breeding, how to put the cob to the slut, never the other way around or he could kill her, leave them for a couple of ferocious hours and then sometimes it is necessary to drag the cob off because they don’t know when to stop. Etc.

Allbones has the job of collecting ferrets to take to the colony of New Zealand because previous settlers took rabbits. You can sing it to the tune of:  I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.

He (of course) falls for the beautiful and enigmatic Eugenia, whose thoughts and feelings remain obscure. She is the granddaughter of Allbones’ employer and is both extremely observant of animals and beguilingly naive of people. Poor kid.

The period detail is expertly executed and full of sound and colour. Farrell is particularly evocative with her smells; the stench of 412 humans, 202 caged ferrets, 66 stoats, 82 weasels and 3200 pigeons (plus stray rats, mice, seabirds and the odd shark dissected on deck) in a tub in the tropical heat seems to be part of my memory now, as if I had been on board the Adam and Eve as she sailed south. It is as unpleasant as the story that is unexpectedly burst open as they race across the roaring 40s to New Zealand.

There’s an earlier name swap which hangs over the book and for which I expect a resolution which doesn’t happen. That’s distracting. And the whimsical, rather emotionless ending is disturbing. But the Victorians were a disturbing lot, with their twisted morality and God given authority to take what they want and rearrange the world to their liking.

And, often as not, they got away with it.

It’s a quick book, a good one as a Book Club read on the lighter side but still with lots of fascinating topics, big and small, to discuss and excellent writing from a very polished New Zealand author.

 

Here’s another Fiona Farrell, very different, equally good: Decline & Fall on Savage Street – book review