Tag Archives: fiction

Tin Man

Novel about love, loss and living a life

Another find from the Lifeline Book Fair, I picked up this book because of its striking yellow and blue cover, and bought it because of the author. I read Sarah Winman’s “When God was a Rabbit” shortly after it came out, and I remember being very struck by the book at the time. I actually have her second book on my shelf to read as well, but I decided to tackle this one next.

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My partner very kindly modeled for me

“Tin Man” by Sarah Winman is a novel set in an industrial UK town from the 1950s to 1990s about two men, Ellis and Michael. In the first half of the book, the narrative flits between past and present, and we learn that Ellis is mourning the death of his wife Annie. However, as his moves through the motions of trying to keep going, his thoughts keep drifting back to the past and his mother, his father and his best friend Michael, who moved to their town when he was 12. The second part of the book is told from the perspective of Michael, whose journals shed light on the intensity of his friendship with Ellis and the hardship of being a gay man in London during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

This book isn’t very long, not much longer than a novella, yet Winman crams entire lives between these pages. She is without a doubt a beautiful writer and excels in her relationships, capturing their complexity and fluidity over time. Ellis and Michael are great contrasting characters and Winman is able to shift narrative perspective completely, examining events through two different experiences. I think I particularly enjoyed the character of Ellis, who Winman depicts as a very young soul who struggles to find a sense of self among the strong personalities in his life. She picked a clever title for this book, referencing both the career Ellis is stuck in as well as his emotional state. I also really enjoyed Ellis’ mother Dora. The opening chapter about the story of how she came to possess a painting was enthralling in its banality about a raffle ticket at a community centre, and I, perhaps like Ellis, found myself wishing that there was more of her in the novel.

This is a surprisingly difficult book to review, especially without revealing too much of the story. I completely understand Winman’s message, and how constrained so many people felt (and still feel) by society when it came to loving who they love. However, the theme of same-sex love being sidelined for heterosexual love when one charactergrows out of it” is a theme I’ve come across many times in very well-known works such as “Brideshead Revisited”, “the Color Purple” and even the “Tales of the Otori” series. Perhaps it would have been better if the character of Annie had been fleshed out a little more, but of all the characters in the story, she remains the most mysterious. Everyone seems to automatically adore her, but we as readers don’t really get much opportunity to understand why.

An intricate novel that I think will touch many people, even if it tackles some familiar themes.

 

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Moby Dick

Classic adventure novel, micro-history of whaling, gay love story

Content warning: mental illness, racism, animal cruelty

My very good friend Annie bought me this stunning edition as a gift probably close to two years ago. A deep blue hardcover with the most incredible silver foil embellishments, the front has an iconic and stylised whale’s tail, and the back has a ship sailing beneath a silver full moon. And the pages. The pages. Tinted edges so silver that they are reflective. This is an incredibly beautiful book, but this novel intimidated me for some time. Firstly, because it is long: over 600 pages of nautical text. Secondly, because I still feel guilty for losing a copy of this book when I borrowed it from the library as a teen many years ago. However, it had been glinting on my bookshelf long enough. Maybe encouraged by the similarly beautiful “Saga Land“, I decided it was finally time.

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This is likely going to be somewhat controversial, but I’m just going to go for it. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville is three books in one.

Firstly, it is an adventure story about a man styling himself as Ishmael who, after starting to feel depressed, decides to mix things up and join a whale hunt. Having previously sailed on merchant ships, his experience is enough to get him signed up but not enough to achieve any particular responsibilities. Aboard the Pequod, Ishmael finally catches a glimpse of the dark and mysterious Captain Ahab, and soon learns of his obsession with seeking revenge against the white whale known as Moby Dick who bit off his leg on a previous voyage. As the journey continues, the narrative flicks between Ishmael and Ahab, and Ahab’s fixation on hunting Moby Dick leads him to take more and more risks.

Secondly, it is a micro-history about the whaling industry. Interspersed throughout the novel, Melville (ostensibly through the voice of Ishmael) provides the reader with detailed explanations of the particulars of whaling, how it’s done and what the materials obtained from whaling are used for. These rather clinical descriptions are contrasted against Ishmael’s observations of whaling generally, showing the reader the extent of  the profit, cruelty and waste that stems from whaling. Melville goes into minute detail about the types of ropes and weapons used, how the whales are dissected for parts and what happens to their bodies after they are discarded.

Thirdly, this book is a queer interracial love story between Ishmael and a man called Queequeg from a fictional Pacific island nation. Ishmael and Queequeg meet when they are given the same bed in the same room at an inn to share by the inn-keeper. Quickly developing rapport, they agree to pool their resources and to travel together henceforth. If you think that reading this story as queer romance is an unreasonable interpretation of such a masculine adventure story, then I present to you the following:

This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied [with putting his tomahawk away and ceasing to smoke in bed], and again politely motioned me to get into bed – rolling over to one side as much as to say – I wont touch a leg of ye. “Good night landlord,” said I, “you may go.” I turned in, and never slept better in my life.

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.

Considering how sociably we had been sleeping together the night previous, and especially considering the affectionate arm I had found thrown over me upon waking in the morning, I thought this indifference of his very strange.

…but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he look please, perhaps a little complimented.

He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and as unbidden as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married…

After supper, and another social chat and smoke, we went to our room together. He…took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine.

Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times until nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.

We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine…

He at once resolved to accompany to that island, ship aboard the same vessel, get into the same watch, the same boat, the same mess with me, in short to share my every hap; with both my hands in his, boldly dip into the Potluck of both worlds.

On the occasion in question, Queequeg figured in the Highland costume – a skirt and socks – in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage; and no one had a better chance to observe him, as will presently be seen.

I rest my case.

Anyway, on to the review. This book almost defies reviews. It is both very funny (the preacher climbing a pulpit made of whale ribs pulling up the ladder behind him) and very boring. It is full of interesting facts, dull facts and erroneous facts (Melville decides that despite being warm-blooded and lactating with a horizontal tail, whales are a type of fish). It is both very progressive (Queequeg is given a higher wage than Ishmael due to his skills and experience), and racist (Queequeg is frequently referred to as a savage), with a range of characters of different races, some more likable and stereotyped than others.

The eponymous character Moby Dick barely features in the novel at all. Melville switches from soliloquy to omniscient third person to theatrical dialogue without any care whatsoever for consistency. Ishmael is both mysterious and dramatic, hinting at experiencing bouts of manic and depressive episodes, high education and low income, a possibly teaching background and, later, and telling his tales to a bevy of handsome young men in Italy.

I probably enjoyed Ahab’s chapters the least, because they were mostly of him muttering under his breath beneath the moonlight, weighing up between hunting Moby Dick and REALLY hunting Moby Dick while chief mate Starbuck looks on grimly. The whale hunts themselves were both fascinating and awful, the whales suffering incredibly while Ishmael provides technical commentary on exactly the way they die. The other characters were a motley bunch with second mate Stubb a firm favourite, especially while pushing the sailors on in the whaleboats with equal parts insult and encouragement in a very amusing tone.

How do you review a book like this? It’s excellent and terrible in almost equal measures. This is a book full of contradictions that, nearly 170 years after publication, still gives readers a lot to think about and plenty to discuss.

 

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Opioid, Indiana

Novel about disadvantage and coming of age

Content warning: drugs, mental illness, suicide

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr is a novel about 17 year old Riggle who ends up living with his uncle in a rural Indiana town in Trump’s America after his parents have died. When Riggle is accused of having a marijuana vape pen, he is suspended from school for 5 days. Careful to conserve his mobile phone data and avoid his uncle’s wrath, Riggle tries to think of what to do for the week. However, when his uncle’s girlfriend tells him that his uncle is missing, he realises that if they can’t come up with the $800 rent that’s due, they’re going to have nowhere to live. So starts 5 days of Riggle looking for his uncle, finding work, meeting locals and chatting with Remote, a shadow puppet his mother introduced him to who explained how the days of the week got their name.

This is an engrossing book that explores a number of issues that continue to impact disadvantaged rural areas under the leadership of President Donald Trump. Poverty, drug addiction, grief, depression, suicide, lack of job opportunity, lack of housing security, mental illness, gun violence, school shootings and Confederate flags all take their toll on Riggle. However, I found him to be a really warm and interesting character despite the significant amount of hardship he had endured, not least of which was losing both his parents.

Very few books about orphans deal with the trauma of parents dying in a meaningful way, and I felt that Carr’s use of Remote as both a comforting remnant of childhood as well as a lens through which Riggle sees the world as inspired. Other things that his mother taught him, such as making an omelette, end up opening doors for Riggle that he didn’t even know were there. I also thought that Carr introduced an intriguing bit of unreliability into Riggle’s story when he begins to notice people making a particular shape with their hands that looks like Remote, suggesting that Riggle is unconsciously seeking meaning in a world that makes no sense.

There are a lot of themes woven through this book, and one that I think I would have like a little more developed is Riggle’s friendship with Bennet. Bennet, an easygoing biracial character with a loving yet strict mother, draws out an sense of intimacy from Riggle. However, given how important friendships are during times of difficulty, and given the distance from Riggle’s only other friend, I think I would have liked to have seen this friendship developed a little more.

A well-constructed and unique novel, I’m surprised it hasn’t received more acclaim.

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The Ice Palace

Norwegian literary novel about a missing schoolgirl

Content warning: missing child

While on my trip to Northern Europe, I wanted to read a book from every country I visited. This book is hailed as a Norwegian classic, and I was keen to try something a bit different to Scandi Noir.

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“The Ice Palace” by Tarjei Vesaas and translated by Elizabeth Rokkan is a literary novel about a young girl called Siss who meets a new girl in school just as winter is setting in at her small Norwegian town – freezing the river solid. Although Unn is much more reserved than popular Siss, Siss is nevertheless drawn to her and the two girls spend an intimate evening playing together. The next day, after Unn skips school to explore a frozen waterfall, the town bands together to try and find her. One of the last to see her, Siss is grilled for answers as to where she may be. While Unn remains missing, Siss is also at risk of being lost.

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Icicles on traditional houses just outside Oslo, Norway

This is a beautiful, eerie novel that explores the intense yet fragile nature of the friendship of young girls. I don’t like to compare books too much, but it reminded me of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood. It had a similar dreamy quality juxtaposed against the sharp clarity of friendship, made all the more dramatic by the captivating yet deadly winter landscape. The opening scenes of the book with the cracking sounds of the ice in the darkness and the frozen beauty of the waterfall was mesmerising. This is quite a short book, almost a novella, and I am still haunted by it. Vesaas knows exactly how much information to give to the reader, and exactly how much to withhold. I also thought that he provides the reader with an incredible insight into the life-shattering and unresolved grief that comes with knowing someone who has gone missing.

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A waterfall on our way to Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord

This was an excellent, haunting book that is an ideal novel for travelling through the spectacular scenery of Norway.

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Swing Time

Novel about race, class and fame

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, and gosh did I take a long time to get around to reading it. I’m not quite sure why, but I picked it up from my to-read pile, thumbed through a page or two, the put it back down more times than I can count. By the time I did read it, it was well past the publication date.

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“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is a novel about an unnamed biracial narrator who grows up in a London housing estate with her mother, who has Jamaican heritage, and her white father. Obsessed with black and white dance musicals, the narrator takes lessons at a community dance class where she meets another biracial girl called Tracey. Despite living in the same disadvantaged area, the narrator’s autodidact mother is scornful of Tracey, her white mother and her absent father. Nevertheless, Tracey and the narrator become fast friends, united by location and a love for dance (although Tracey is far more talented). As the narrator grows up, she gradually loses touch with Tracey and eventually becomes the personal assistant for a white, narcissistic pop star called Aimee. When Aimee decides on a whim to build a school in a West African country, the narrator is the one left to implement the plan. Although growing up black and disadvantaged by British standards, the narrator is initially unprepared for life in West Africa, and struggles to connect with the people that they are trying to help. As time goes on, the narrator’s relationship with her parents, Aimee and Tracey begin to bleed together and become more and more fraught.

This is a complex and ambitious book that tackles issues of race, class, fame and identity. Smith is clever not to ever name the narrator, because I think one of the overwhelming themes in this book is how much she lives her own life and how much is spent in the shadow of Tracey, Aimee and her own mother. Smith effectively uses the contrast between the housing estate and the West African village to explore the extremes of living as a biracial person. I also thought that she brought a unique perspective to what life must be like working for a famous person, and how mercurial a lifestyle that must be. Smith is a strong writer and it is certainly a readable book.

There is no question that Smith covers a range of interesting issues in her book, but I think that as a whole, this book was missing a uniting factor. I get that part of the narrator’s problem is that she is a bit lacking in personality and relies on anchoring to other people to help propel her through life. However, where the narrator should have been the one connecting the experiences of being a friend, a personal assistant and a daughter, she ultimately just wasn’t engaging enough as a character to bring the whole story together. I think if the story had been just about having a troubled best friend, or just an overbearing mother, or just a egocentric boss – it might have been able to firm up and tease out the narrative a bit more. However, as it is, the narrator just feels a bit like a leaf in the breeze and just a little too complacent about where her life goes to be able to find any meaning.

A well-written book that tackles a lot of interesting issues that ultimately doesn’t have the connecting factor to propel the story.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Scottish novel about routine, denial and coping when it all crumbles

Content warning: trauma, childhood trauma, mental illness, substance abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman is an eponymous novel about Eleanor, a 29 year old woman who lives her life completely by routine. Every week she works in her administrative job, reads the newspaper, completes the crossword, listens to public broadcasting, watches television and drinks two bottles of vodka over the weekend. Eleanor has no friends, no family and no social interaction aside from unsolicited marketing calls and jokes at her expense by colleagues. Eleanor tells herself that everything is completely fine, but when she develops a crush on a musician, and inadvertently opens herself to the possibility of change, she may not be ready for everything else that comes flooding in.

This is an extremely readable book. In a style not dissimilar to Graeme Simsion, Honeyman has a real knack for dramatic irony. I’m always very impressed with authors that manage to carry this off, because let’s be honest – it’s always a smug feeling when you feel smarter (or in this case more socially adept) than the character you are reading about. Eleanor’s bumbling is particularly endearing, but I think that Honeyman importantly gets the balance right by allowing for enough character development and conflict so that the story is not just a series of cringeworthy exchanges. I also really enjoyed how she took really mundane, everyday things and made them new with Eleanor’s unique perspective.

A criticism I have made about many, many, many books I have read is the use of trauma, especially childhood trauma, as a plot device – but I’m going to make it in a slightly different way for this book. I feel like a lot of novels use the idea of repressed memories as a means for exploring difficult issues such as childhood trauma. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a psychologist and give a commentary on the controversy around the idea of repressed memories. However, I do want to note that for an unacceptably high number of people, trauma is something they have to live with everyday. There are already far too many barriers to people disclosing traumatic events as it is, let alone the phenomena of repressed memories, and I think that I’d like to see authors explore some of those issues instead.

However, unlike another book I read, I did really appreciate that Honeyman emphasised the importance of counselling and social support in recovery, and I felt that she did a really good job of depicting Eleanor in crisis.

A well-written, enjoyable read that emphasises the importance of human connection.

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Sweet Bitter Cane

Italian-Australian family saga

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Sweet Bitter Cane” by G S Johnson is a family saga about a young woman called Amelia who, after a wedding with a stand-in for the groom in Italy, moves to Queensland to meet her new husband Italo and support him in growing sugarcane. Although young, Amelia is smart and resilient and soon overcomes her language barriers and finds her place managing the financial side of the farm. However, haunted by a connection she has with her neighbour’s son Fergus and increasingly isolated by her social and political choices, when the war breaks out and Italians are targeted, the secrets and nationalist pride Amelia harboured to keep herself safe suddenly threaten to destroy everything her family has built.

This is an epic story that traces the life of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who leaves everything she knows behind to start a new life in a country that largely doesn’t welcome her. Johnson does an admirable job of setting the geographic and political scene of a seemingly hostile new life and has a particular flair for character development. Amelia hardens as the story progresses, and it’s unusual (and refreshing!) to see such an evolution of a character while still retaining the essence of who she is. Johnson isn’t afraid to explore Amelia’s mistakes to their full consequences and her flaws and poor choices juxtaposed against her successes make her all the more relatable. The internment of Italians during WWII is another forgotten pocket of Australian history, and Johnson written a nuanced account of something that truly happened to people living here.

For the most part, I was impressed at how Johnson told Amelia’s story but one thing that I was perplexed about throughout the book was the appeal of Fergus. While Amelia’s character remained interesting and engaging throughout the novel, I wasn’t always on board with her relationships and how she managed them, and most particularly so the connection she had with Fergus. Although for the most part the pacing of the novel was good, I did feel at times that some of the writing was a little too descriptive and could have been condensed a little more.

Regardless, this is an interesting and important story about the experience of women during a period of Australian history rarely discussed.

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