Monday, 24 August 2015

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

I thought I was about to read a satire about office life, but this tiny, tightly written, claustrophobic novel is way too dark and goes beyond satire into a kind of horror fable, taking on the large question of predestination.   A young woman struggling to find work and start a family with her husband in an unnamed city finds the only work she can which is entering data, (names and numbers), into a database for an unknown purpose.  Her office is soulless and oppressive, the work boring and tedious.  She meets no one other than her faceless, repulsive boss and one strangely exuberant co-worker.  Attempts to engage with others in the long hallways of closed doors are met with wariness.  When she asks her boss the purpose of the data entry, she is advised not to be curious.  Needing the work she complies without effort, until she unexpectedly discovers the true nature of her job. Further her husband mysteriously disappears, ratcheting up the tension for the reader.  While comparison to Calvino on the inside jacket may not be merited (I think more like Eggars), this first novel by Phillips is successful in what it aspires to do, and I will definitely be looking to see what she comes up with next.

Monday, 29 June 2015

I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

Having read, years ago, Owen Sheer's non fiction book about his relatives in Zimbabwe, and enjoying it, I thought I would give his new novel I Saw a Man a go.  Sheer's is also a poet and it shows here.  His prose is economical but delicate.  But this story about guilt and grief suffers from difficulties with character development.  When we were young, I used to ask my sister Melanie "how are you enjoying that book?".  Sometimes her answer would be "meh".  Enough said.  That is how I felt upon reading the last page.  The plot is compelling:  the main character Michael's reporter wife Caroline is killed "inadvertently" by a U.S. drone in Afghanistan.  Michael is later the cause of the death of his best friend's four year old, also inadvertently.  The American responsible for the drone strike suffers guilt but is able to hide behind American policy. Michael is also able to hide: no one witnessed the child's death, and Michael never admits his culpability.

The novel failed for me in that, although the grief and guilt are stated and displayed, it is never truly felt by the reader, therefore making it difficult to fully engage with the plight of the characters.  They are never fully realised, but rather, remain cardboard props to present ideas of guilt, shame, restitution.  I think the ideas that Sheer's wanted to convey are brilliant, especially about the lack of resolution or redemption , but ultimately this novel is instantly forgettable. Too bad.  As my sister would say: meh.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer

I usually avoid domestic fiction, unless it is satirical, but something drew me into this novel. It begins with a short chapter describing the war history of the patriarch, a physician serving on a war ship during world war 2 and his courtship of the inscrutable woman who becomes the mother of his four children.  Although not highly literary, the novel held my interest as the mother becomes more distant from her family, eventually abandoning them to become an artist.  In the children's attempt to please their mother and keep her close, they decide to hold a crusade, trying to come up with a family event that would give her pleasure.  Their juvenile (they are children after all) never comes to fruition.  This indeed imitates life as so often our best attempts to love someone becomes interrupted by distraction and the minor events of our own lives.  The Millions described the novel as like a Franzen novel, but with likeable characters, which is such an absurd statement I had to mention it here.  Who needs to like any character in a novel?  We just have to feel for them and learn to understand what motivates their actions.  Later chapters are narrated from the point of view of each adult child, and here Packer is successful.  Each character has a unique voice and their childhood viewed from the adult perspective is illuminating.  The resolution and acceptance of their mother's abandonment is a little too pat, but all in all the novel is a "good read" while not being hugely demanding.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

I don't normally read "true crime", equating it with people who slow down while driving to stare at an accident scene, but Leovy attempts more a study, almost of an anthropological nature, to explore black on black homicide rates in Los Angeles, by working alongside detectives in south L.A.  I have worked in policing as a dispatcher for over 25 years so have always struggled with my own prejudices as to why violent crime persists.  Leovy's thesis is fairly simple, by this I mean clearly portrayed, that the perception by black people in the neighbourhoods of south L.A. is that police and politicians do not care, because they are black, and thus they must police themselves. The homicide rates are staggering, almost impossible to comprehend.  Leovy backs her thesis with some history of the south and the need for extralegal imperatives in marginalised societies. She then turns her thesis on its head by following some of the dedicated detectives in their attempt and ultimate success in solving the murder of Bryant Tenelle, age 17.  Leovy explores the abject fear of witnesses to come forward due to the very real threat of reprisal.  She portrays the community's sense of exhaustion with police, that it is just another black man killed.  But a detective, John Skaggs, feels very deeply about the problem, stating with sadness and exasperation "all these innocent men!".   Tenelle had no gang ties and is the son of a police detective himself.   I wondered if the book would have had the same impact were Leovy to choose another victim to write about. Black lives matter but the emphasis on solving the homicide of a son of a police officer lends the book a certain slant that the son of a drug dealer or prostitute may be less interesting or of less impact to the reader.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

After reading Shame and the Captives, which I loved so much, I pulled Daughters of Mars from my bookshelves.  This is an incredibly researched novel of the first world war about two sisters, Naomi and Sally.  Both are nurses in Australia and join the war effort in that capacity.  Told in the third person, the point of view shifts from sister to sister.  They start out together on a hospital ship, launched from Egypt and end together on the western front.  Never before have I read a novel that illustrates the absolute arbitrariness of who lives, who dies in the great and awful war machine. The novel is immense with plot without sacrificing character development.  Naomi is the elder and stronger sister, Sally is the more conflicted; they both harbour a secret and may have been complicit in their mother's death by administering an overdose of stolen morphine to hasten her death from painful and terminal cancer.   In one incredible chapter the hospital ship's red cross identification is painted over black to be used to transport more men and horses to the field.  The ship is torpedoed and sunk.  Naomi and Sally are part of a group on a life boat waiting for rescue, with soldiers hanging on to the sides of the boat, until the cold and fatigue cause some to just let go and drift off to drown.  My heart was in my throat reading this chapter.

Naomi and Sally are separated after rescue.   Naomi's strength and sense of justice cause her to rebel against a cruel hospital colonel and she is sent back to Australia.  She reapplies and is successful, eventually becoming a nurse at a privately funded hospital near the western front.  Sally also goes to the western front at a clearing station very close to the fighting.  Keneally is impeccable in his description of treatment of the injured and dying men.  How little one could do for these poor men in 1917.  Amputate.  Morphine.  And the quicker back to the fighting the better.  Shell shock and the irony of so called shirking.

To further illustrate the arbitrariness of who lives, who dies, both sisters contract the influenza that swept the world in 1918.  In a heart stopping final chapter to this woeful war two endings are given.  Do both sisters die?  Or does Naomi live and Sally die?  Does Sally live and Naomi die?   It might have been a literary gimmick, but I chose to see it as a beautiful and thoughtful way to illustrate how effectively and devastatingly any life changes when just one life is lost in war.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Shame and the Captives by Thomas Keneally

This fantastic novelization of the Japanese Prisoner of War breakout from Cowra prisoner of war camp in Australia is one of the best books I've read this year.  Keneally, through extensive and acknowledged research gets in the minds and thought processes of these inscrutable men and their culture of war, especially in regards to the shame of capture.  The narrative also includes Alice, who is living on her husband's farm with her father in law, while her husband is interred in a camp in Germany, and her relationship with Giancarlo, an Italian prisoner of war who is living and working on their farm.  She is missing her husband and indeed starting to forget him and enters into a sexual relationship with Giancarlo, little more than a slave himself.  Also we meet Albercare, camp commandant, a rather hapless but well meaning man, who is trying to stick to the Geneva Convention in regards to treatment of prisoners and his difficult relationship with his wife, to whom he has been unfaithful.  And there in Major Suttor, also trying not to fuck anything up with the Japanese since his son is a prisoner of war in Burma, where it is known that prisoners are being ill treated.  He is afraid any errors in judgement will directly affect his son's treatment.   (Although it wasn't till after the war that the world knew about the extent of the atrocities).   Keneally is a master story teller and I was riveted from page 1.  He has a well honed facility for both plot and character.  A beautiful and brilliant novel.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Road Ends by Mary Lawson

This lovely and simple novel languished on my shelf for almost a year before I picked it up and read it in one sitting.  The setting is northern Ontario during blizzard season and England in the late 1960's and is told from three points of view in alternating chapters, a device I am not overly fond of, but which worked beautifully here.  There is Edward, the patriarch, who is working through the legacy of a violent and harsh childhood while his wife completely absorbs herself in baby after baby, letting the household work fall into the hands of her only daughter Megan.  Megan is brilliantly brought to life by the author.  She exiles herself to London to find her independence, as if the only way to escape the endless drudgery of raising her brothers is to leave Ontario altogether.  And then there is her brother, kind and lost Tom, suffering after the suicide of his best friend.  Tom, although isolated by his grief is the one to notice things are awry in his family, but is at a loss to intervene in any effective way.  Gradually all three characters come to an understanding of their place in the world and how to give their lives some kind of purpose.  I highly recommend this novel.