Book Review: A Far County

a far country

‘A Far County’ by Daniel Mason is a novel of seeking and finding. Isabel, the main character, is a young girl living in poverty in a small, Catholic village in an unnamed South America. Her family battles drought and illness as they scratch out a living from subsistence farming – supplementing their diet with rodents and cactus.

Summary

Isabel is seeking her brother, Isasis. Isasis, like many other young men and women of Isabel’s village, St Michael of the Cain, has fled to the Big City to find a better existence – one where he can be a musician and not a cane farmer, one where he can protect his hands and soul, not have them be crushed under the weight of intensive labour or permanent hunger.

And yet, in the months following Isasis departure, Isabel begins to worry about his welfare and whereabouts. Initially, he communicates regularly with this family in the village, and even sends money. He is doing well, according to his correspondence: he is a well regarded musician playing with a band, working, making some kind of a living.

 

When communications stop, along with Isabel’s brewing sense of unease, she convinces her family that she too, will take the trek to Big City – to stay with a cousin and help her with childcare, while also trying to find work. As Isabel is not only a devoted younger sister, she is also blesses with a gift of insight, a sixth sense to understand the world in a different way.

When Isabel arrives after a crowded and dangerous journey along the roads to the city,  she discovers that Big City is vast and complex with different divisions and area, with complicated bus routes and streets to navigate. It is a place where working people make long bus journeys to work as waitresses, maids and cook. Where they seek out an existence cramped together in temporary dwellings pitched on hillsides.

And when her brother does not arrive at their agreed meeting place, she begins her search anew, tying to solve the mystery of his disappearance.

Comments:

‘A Far County’ is in many ways a beautiful book – it is original and compelling with engaging and unique characters. Mason also uses beautifully phrased descriptive language coupled with a matter-of-fact tone that really gives a depth and feeling to Isabel’s world.

He also knows when to pull back, to not overstate, to let his reader come to their own conclusions.

A nice example of his writing is as follows:

They began to scratch for tubers and cactus fruit in the hills. They sharpened their knives on stones, held one end of the cactus with their teeth and the other with their fingers. They slit them open as though they were animals’ bellies and ate the white meat inside.

Manson also considers a number of confronting themes in this book: poverty, identify and place (and of course class), but he does not preach to his reader and attempt overt morality. Instead he describes the places, the people, and gives important passages of dialogue that give incredible insight.

A Far Country is also an  commentary on less obvious issues: respect for the ‘old ways’, those skills practiced by those who may be farmers or hunters – old, primal skills that are not considered of any importance in a modern world, and yet, are worthy of praise and respect. In some regards, this is where A Far Country reminds me most of The Grapes of Wrath (of course not withstanding the similar setting and plight of the characters), it is perhaps the respect of the working poor that shines through.

It was an incredibly promising story that somehow fell short (despite meeting expectations in terms of a clear narrative arc and clever and suspenseful plot development.) The story got lost in a latter part of the book at times, and meandered to the point of frustration, despite all the sumptuous language and interesting character developments.

Still a good (and quick!) read.

Book Details:

Manson, Daniel., 2007, first published in paperback by Picador. ISBN: 978 0 330 49270 6

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Book Review: Z for Zachariah by Robert O’Brien

ZforZachariah_edited

It’s been a while. I know. But I’ve been on holidays to a cute coastal town nested between the sea and a temperate rain-forest. Now, this town not only has the best ice-cream in the Southern Hemisphere, it also hosts a cracking annual book sale (which I just happened to be present for). That’s where I got my next classic to review…

Introduction: 

This neat little paperback contains some unsettling ideas.

A teenage girl, Ann Burden, is left seemingly alone on planet Earth after an unspecified nuclear disaster wipes out all human existence on the planet. Ann has been saved, perhaps, by the fact she lives in a remote valley in rural America. She also has access to shelter, fresh water and the ability and knowledge  to manage crops – thus saving her from starvation.

And while Ann is incredibly lonely, she is also safe in her valley haven – she can survive on her own – after all, she has done so for the good part of a year. And yet, all that changes when Ann sees a column of smoke rising from a distance valley one May evening.

This smoke on the horizon heralds the arrival of  an unknown man in a radiation suit. But is he friend, or foe? This man turns out to be a scientist, Mr Loomis, who is not all that he seems.

Comment:

I can’t say too much more about the details of the book without spoiling the plot development for those of you who many not have read this 70s classic, but I want to comment on some of the beautiful features of the book.

Firstly, the book is cleverly written in a diary format and for a story with so few characters, it has enough action and variety to keep the reader engaged. The story of Ann now, in her present, as well as her inner thoughts, and reminiscence, helps the reader piece together the history of her life before the tragedy, and the relationship between her family, her neighbors and her local connections.

Robert O’Brien (who died before the book was published) also states facts and events (even quiet traumatic events) in a very matter-of-fact way. He doesn’t allow Ann to wallow, to give over precious time in the plot to emotions. That way, he keeps the reader focused on the action, on what is going to happen next. There is well balanced tension in this narrative throughout (but I must admit, there were times I could face reading what was likely to occur!).

O’Brien also allows his character, Ann, to struggle, to face set-backs but also maintain an inner kindness and morality (suitable to her age and isolated country upbringing). And yet, sometimes I did want more of her – I wanted her to breakdown, to fall into despair, to pull her hair out. And yet, she carries on with a strength that can be surprising.

While there are no clear winners in this novel – Ann versus the Man (Mr Loomis) – untimely I feel that she triumphs despite making some critical sacrifices in order to survive. After all, she should be rewarded for following the more noble path, shouldn’t she?

On a side note, it’s always interesting to consider technology in this genre of book (Ann often talks about the importance of radio broadcasts). What would happen if Ann had access to the internet, or a smart phone? Would she be just as abandoned? Or much less so?

Book Details:

My edition published by Fontana Lions 1987 (first edition published 1975).

IMG_7142

 

I’m currently reading A Brief History of Seven Killings and this is turning out to be an incredibly clever and worthwhile novel (the more I read, the more I appreciate the complexity). It is, however, a wee  bit violent (considering it’s set in a gangland Jamaica of the 1970s perhaps this is not surprising). So, I’m looking for a respite novel, perhaps something written in a colder, more genteel time. Something I can read at night and not get scared when it’s lights out.

The respite novel contenders include:

Book 1 : Jamaica Inn – by Daphne duMaurier.

Image result for jamaica inn book

This novel was first published in 1936, and tells the sad story of Mary Yellan, a young women forced to live with her virtually unknown maternal aunt and uncle in a remote part of Cornwall. Her uncle, Joss, is the landlord of the Jamaica Inn,  an ill-reputed public house where things go bump in the night.

Could be?

Young Daphne du Maurier.jpg
Daphne duMaurier

By the way, how beautiful was the young duMaurier? 1920s style!

 

Book 2: Cranford – by Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve seen the BBC series, but never read the novel. As you may guess, this novel is about a little town called Cranford, deep in the heart of rural 19th century England. It seems to be a place where women wear bonnets and the men are chivalrous and dashing. Well, most of the time. The main character is Miss Matty, a kind and intelligent woman, who faces financial hardship with dignity, supporting her family and friends.

I’m keen – given how much I loved the series (or was that just about Judy?)

Image result for cranford elizabeth gaskell judi dench

Book 3: The Secret History – by Donna Tartt. 

The Secret History, front cover.jpg

Now, I’ve read a few chapters of this, after really growing to love her 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Goldfinch, but this novel, her first, is leaving me a bit underwhelmed. Is she try too hard to impress me with her well-rounded knowledge of the classics? Or her brooding yet edgy characters? Or, is it that the central character, Richard Papen, is just annoying ? The premise of the novel, a murder mystery in reverse, centered around a group of eccentric New England students, is certainly intriguing…and could be very rewarding.

Well that’s it from me! Happy reading all!

 

Book Review: My Left Foot by Christy Brown

Book Review: My Left Foot by Christy Brown

My Left Foot is the tale of Christy Brown: born in 1930s Dublin, one of 17 children, living in cramped conditions and not much to go around. Perhaps an unlikely candidate to write a successful autobiography in his early 20s. Perhaps even more so, given that Brown was born with cerebral palsy and given little hope of life outside an institution.

Yet Brown manages something truly amazing. He learns to write with his left foot, then going on to write more  sophisticated sentences and phrases, leading, finally, to his career as a poet and novelist.

The story starts, well, at the start. Brown was born in 1932, a ‘difficult birth’ requiring extra care and recuperation. At around four months, his mother notices something wrong with Brown’s muscle tone, unable to hold his head up and communicate as her other children had. These muscle and speech difficulties continues into infancy;  Brown at five years old describes himself as a ‘little bundle of crooked muscles and twisted nerves’.

Yet with much persistence and determination, as well as unwavering support from his mother, he begins to communicate via foot-writing at around age five, using chalk between his toes to spell out words.

As he grows and matures, Brown also begins to explore his local community, thus opening his world, just a little. He carefully weaves in some heart-warming tales of ‘little outings’ with his older sisters and brothers, exploring the local area (in a home-build go-cart), including going to the cinema and even swimming.

He also, so honestly, tells of the emotional pain of feeling trapped in his body, of the growing awareness of how is life was so different, and restricted, compared to other young people around him. ‘I was now ten, a boy who couldn’t walk, talk, feed or dress himself…’. (p50), and also later, of his thoughts of suicide.

It was also during this time (aged 11 onward) that he meets with some phenomenal professionals, such as Miss Delahunt who motivates and supports Brown’s development at home (including his painting and writing). He also receives regular visits from Dr Robert Collis, who established a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin, one of the first of it’s kind (see link below for more information about the man called the ‘Irish Schindler’.

Comment:

Brown’s sChristy Browntory is one of struggle and persistence
culminating in successes that Brown had never imagined – being a best selling writer, with his story known across the world, being asked to publicly appear along side the likes of Burl Ives.

But Brown’s story is also one of melancholy, of yearning for a ‘normal’ life, where he could have a ‘dream-girl’ or be able to join is brothers and sisters living life outside the confines of his crowded Dublin house.

It is this balance, combined with incredible insight into his own development as a writer, that makes this book so readable. Brown gives space in My Left Foot to examine his inspiration to write, to narrate his progress as an emerging writer with intense and unashamed honesty. As a reader, I loved hearing about which authors inspired him to write more and refine his craft  – greats such as Dickens, Caesar and Shaw, and the influence they had on his early work.

Recommended:

For anyone that loves a tale of triumph over adversity. Probably a good one for young adult readers – easy to follow, a introducing into some complex moral issues (disability and self-determination for example.)

Details:

My edition: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1989 ISBN: 7493 0101 5

Links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Left_Foot (Movie)

http://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/bob-collis-the-irish-schindler/

Book Review: Hunting the Wild Pineapple by Thea Astley

When I was a little tacker, my grandmother went on a trip to Queensland where she visited (and indeed went inside) a building of renowned brilliance and taste – yep, she went to the Giant Pineapple. Maybe looked something like this?

The Giant Pineapple retro

Now, while you are recovering from the dazzling splendor that is  an over -sized fruit (built circa 1971), I’d like to bring your attention to something from 1970s Queensland that’s a little more literary; Hunting the Wild Pineapple by Brisbane-born Thea Astley (circa 1925 – 2004).

I have to confess, I haven’t read much Astley (and have been known to get her confused with Amy Witting) but when I saw a slim book of short stories in the local library I decided to give it a go.

Hunting the Wild Pineapple

Introduction:

Hunting the Wild Pineapple is a collection of short stories based loosely around the times and people populating the life of former hotel manager, Leverson, who is self-described as the child of two people who ‘were a pair of sad marital misfits bound together by the tragedy of me‘(p4).

But this is not just a book about Leverson (or his main haunt, Reeftown). His first-person tales are shared with stories from other lives and in other homes and locations. Lives such as Father Rassini and Cannon Morro, who both vying to prove their denomination of Christianity is superior to the other. Or the oddly tender story of the rotund Jesus Freak who lives in a commune, yet seeks comfort from a sexagenarian known as the Fixer, author of bad poetry and fixer of ‘things’.

Hunting the Wild Pineapple displays a society that is on the cusp of change (the end of a more conservative era, perhaps) but one that is also struggling with entrenched beliefs around religion, gender, class and power.

For all the social commentary and mysticism, Astley also uses her stories to explore complex human relationships in a unique and sophisticated way.

Comments:

Astley’s writing is mesmerizing, rhythmic and well paced. She also balances vivid and sensual details with dry, black wit. For example:

‘She wasn’t conservative. She wasn’t really dull. She was simply – well, let’s put it this way – forty two.’ (Maahaha) 

The downside with all this lovely unique writing and different voices is the stories were a little confusing and just, well, took effort (I was away for the weekend when I read this, so maybe I was just in a ‘lazy-reader’ mood!)

If you haven’t read Astley, you may want to start with something more well known (The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996) or Collected short-stories (1997).

Anyway, I’m of to try (again) to read A Brief History of Seven Killings. 

Happy reading!

Book Details:

Published by Penguin Australia in 1981. ISBN: 978 0 14 005843 7

 

Book Review: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All the birds, singing

All the Birds, Singing is an exciting and heart-wrenching tale of the fragile yet tough Jake Whyte, a sheep farmer of  a remote UK island who something sinister lurking in her past. And yep, she’s a lady in a man’s world with a man’s name.

At first, Wyld makes it hard for her readers to  place Jake, in time or in place, as the narrative moves from Jake’s present  to her past in Australia, where she was an outback shearer, among other things.

Jake is clearly an outsider in her small, UK farming village. She’s got a bad haircut and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; the local kids think she’s a bit of a nutter. But Jake is a tough woman who doesn’t need (or maybe even want), help.

But then, something starts attaching her sheep, mauling them and leaving them for dead. Is this something she can handle on her own, or does she need outside help to solve this mystery?

And while the reader is focused on the mystery in the present (including the appearance of a strange man, Lloyd, who ends up staying with Jake and helping with the farm), there is also the emerging, and enthralling, story of her past. We know her mother liked to drink, there she had a chorus of siblings (including triplets) and that Jake started shearing to get away from something. But what? And how did this Australian sheep-farmer did she end up in remote England, with no family, partner or connections to call on?

Wyld gives her readers clues to this mystery throughout, dropping hints and cryptic clues. We know Jake has been shearing in some far-flung (and heat-smashed) locations like Kambalda and Kalgoorlie. We learn about a man called Otto, someone who took care of her (or did he?)  There is clearly so much to learn, and yet Jake (and Wyld) refuses to give it up.

As we learn more about Jake’s present and past, we begin to make sense of her life, and her relationships. And then the mystery of this strange sheep farmer, starts to resolve.

Commentary (and potential spoilers) :

Narrative Structure and Oddities:

This is a novel with clear nineteenth century Gothic – the creature lurking ready to kill, the woman alone in a hostile landscape, moments of seemingly paranormal occurrences, the isolated farm-house. But it is also a very crisp, modern tale about life and relationships, about people who are beyond traditional definitions – characters like Jake Whyte.

Not only does Jake move between two clear narratives (past and present), she also moves in and out of our ideals of what it means to be a woman. Tough yet scared. Independent, yet needing people. Uncaring of looks, fashion and domestic trivialities, yet longing for comfort.

Wyld has done a pretty good job maneuvering  the story of Jake in the present (UK based, narrative moving forward in time) and Jake in the past, the narrative moving backward in time (but it’s not always clear or easy to follow) Both frustrating and fascinating! After all, when is life a clearly linear story? When are we not all influenced by our past and choices from a younger self?

Realism and Research:

The other really well-developed aspect of this novel (apart from the strong writing) is the research and the realistic writing (situations and characters ). Take for example, Wyld’s attention to detail. It is very present it all aspects of the book,  but most striking, in my opinion, when  describing Jake’s working life – as a sex-worker, then a shearer, and finally, a sheep farmer).

First, Jake the sex worker. We learn, somewhere near middle of the novel, that Jake has been a sex worker. From my limited experience working in the health and social policy fields, I know there are many reasons why women (and some men) move into  prostitution as a means of earning income. It’s not always about drugs or as a result of sexual exploitation. Sometimes it is an economic reality (as it was for Jake. She wouldn’t go back to her family, she didn’t have the identify documents required to claim government benefits, and she was earning just enough to sleep or eat ‘but not both’). That’s what makes (for me) this part of the story so sad, but so incredibly real.

Yet Jake does transition from sex-worker (and victim) to shearer – and this incredibly powerful and beautiful.  Wyld’s attention to detail of the shearing life – the board and shearing shed, the communal dining room, the shit-stirring culture – is very skilled and painstaking. The shearing is also Jake’s symbol of transition – she has gained skilled and respect,  able to complete with an all-male shearing team and seems to find, for a short while, some semblance of peace.

The Twist:

Now, this book is no without it’s twists and turns, however  I  personally felt that it came together beautifully in the end. Some readers and reviews have suggested the novel, and it’s ending, seems abrupt (true) but I felt that it was also incredibly fitting for such an unusually structured tale, and I wouldn’t have any other way.

Quirky Quote:

On the drive back to the station, Dad feels like an orange in my sternum. I repeat the words over and over in my head, Dad’s died, Dad’s died, until they don’t mean anything.

Recommendation:

A must-read for Australian literature lovers and someone looking for unconventional writing. Excellent use of metaphor and descriptions of landscapes. Dark. Mysterious. Confronting. However, one last thing. Watch out for the explicit sex, violence and swearing. A bit much perhaps? Or maybe it’s just a way to convey the brutality of Jake’s experience…? Nah, probably a bit too much.😉

Book Details:

ISBN: 978 1 74275 730 8 (pkb). Published in Australia by Vintage 2013

Awards: Miles Franklin Literary Award

 Farm Panther

BONUS: A Personal Tall Tale…

And now…a little sheep farming tall tale of my own (ah, how self-indulgent, I know!).

Now, this happened to my grandfather, Ben, somewhere in pastoral Australian in the 1950s or early 1960s. Dad swears that it is ‘fair dinkum’) so here goes:

One night, Ben was out checking the sheep in one of the middle paddocks. It was still light outside; early summer. From the corner of his eye, he saw something shoot out from the corner of the paddock, run along the fence line and quickly dart away. When comparing it to the height of the fence posts, it seems like the size and height of a large dog, but moved it a different way. The dog (or other animal) was completely black and travelled off into the distance at quiet a speed. Ben said it was hard to explain, just seemingly more agile than a dog, yet seemed very much like one.

Time went on. Ben kept the usual routine, checking the sheep for fly strike, monitoring fences, feed and water supply, tending to the flock throughout a probably vicious summer.

Then, unexpectedly, he came upon the animal, drinking at one of the sheep troughs. It was crouched over at a strange angle, with its front legs on the lip of the bath, lapping.  Then it noticed him and bolted away. Ben shouted and began to run after it, scared it was going to attack his sheep.

It flew through the paddock and leapt onto a stack hay bales, covered in a tarp, clawing its way up and over, and was one. On inspection, it appeared to have left great gash marks in the tarp that could have only been made by large sharp claws.

And that’s it. He never saw it again. Our family scoffed a bit at this one, dismissing it as a feral cat, but dad swears he saw that tarp, and there was so way a domestic cat (feral or otherwise) could have done that much damage.

Book Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

watch thou for the mutant

Introduction:

John Wyndham’s dystopian novel, The Chrysalids, was written in 1955, and there is no doubt that the narrative was shaped by the events of preceding decades: the rise of fascism,  the development and deployment of nuclear weapons, and the questioning of god, tradition and family.

The novel  focuses on young  Davis Strorm, a boy living with his family in a small, conservative farming community called Waknuk, in Labrador. David is struggling to  find his authentic identity such a constricted, monitored society, where anything different is considered an abomination to God. It doesn’t help matters that David’s father is a community leader who embodies piousness and self-control, to the determent of his own family .

David’s world is post-apocalyptic: his community has survived a nuclear disaster (known as Tribulation) that has left Earth almost uninhabitable, populated with pockets of ‘normals’ amidst vast stretches of arid land – the Fringes and the Badlands, where godless mutants lurk. As a result, communities like Waknuk have gone to extreme measures to maintain order and stability – even if it means turning on family and friends.

When David befriends a young girl, Sophie Wender, after a wrong turn in the woods, his life is changed forever. For Sophie is hiding a secret mutation, that if discovered, could mean banishment and even death. And when David discovers that he too, possesses something that could make him an ‘Abomination’, he has to choose: hide his true self forever, or escape into a life that will mean poverty and near-starvation on the Badlands.

The Chrysalids 2008 edition

Comment/Analysis:

To focus on only a few aspects of this very interesting and often disturbing novel is a challenge. It is the subject matter, the insight and the commentary about conformity that is most interesting. It also touches on a range of subjects: religion, genetic modification, ecological sustainability and the role of authority in modern society. That’s a lot for a novel that barley makes 200 pages.

Wyndham did well with this novel in revealing small parts of world and it’s power constructs bit by bit. For example the location of Waknuk being in Labrador was a significant plot development in the novel. It’s a region that I am only with familiar via Annie Proux’s haunting descriptions of Newfoundland  in ‘The Shipping News‘ – associated with cold, inhospitable weather and ice. Lots of ice. Yet by locating Waknuk in Labrador, Wyndam is telling his reader that this is the dire state of the world – Labrabor, post Tribulation – is prime farm land, probably all there is left in the northern hemisphere.

There were are elements of the novel where I feel that it missed the mark. Sometimes, Wyndam’s style became pondering and slow, perhaps due to spending too much time (in parts) on action descriptions or extended narrative. And that slowed the whole pace of the plot. I did fall asleep in my book during an epic battle scene near the end. Maybe that just means I’m tired though!

I also would have liked to know more about the side characters and their lives, especially Sophie and her family, but then that would change the nature of the book. Maybe a retelling by Margaret Atwood could solve that issue, but then again, we’d probably have to add 300 pages to Wyndham’s tight little novel.

All is all, I’d recommend The Chrysalids as great read and one that raises all kinds of intriguing questions about society, religion and race relations.

Fun Facts:

John Wyndham’s full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucan Benyon Harris (or JWPLB for short? Ok, maybe not?)

Meaning of the term Chrysalids: This is an alternate term for ‘chrysalis’, and I suspect in the context of the novel, it refers to the change of life-stage that David is facing.

Book Details:

First published in 1955. My edition published in 2008 (Penguin Books, London). ISBN: 978-0-141-03297-9.

Related Review:

Chocky by John Wyndam