Friday, 14 October 2011

The Australian Season: Due Preparations for the Plague

Janette Turner Hospital's novel  tackles the themes of terrorism and international espionage on a personal scale. Due Preparations for the Plague, a title borrowed from Daniel Defoe, suggests that it might be possible to prepare ourselves for unspeakable natural disaster. Her novel painstakingly unpicks this assumption until it is in tatters and we know ourselves to be helpless, if not for love.

This is a novel packed with literary and philosophical allusions, which  set it apart from traditional thriller material. Like her other novels, it has a mythic quality, a chorus of narrative voices, which serve to shift the focus, move the action along, and provide a tragic commentary. It shares with her other novels, perhaps especially The Last Magician, an unsettling preoccupation with fate and whether we can avoid it, whether in fact it is ever possible to make due preparations. Her writing is lyrical, elegiac even, but this is a novel with both pace and suspense. Much of the suspense we feel is, inevitably, informed by our memories of 9/11. This is also the site of the novel's greatest elision. We learn nothing of the political motivations of the hijackers. What we attend to is the small reparations that people make towards each other, the redemptive quality of love to connect us in ways that are as equally complex and mysterious as the sinister political connections which also rule our lives. Due Preparations is thrilling, risky, and undeniably moving, it may have a flawed core if one insists on a hard-nosed political reading, but it nevertheless is a tremendous novel.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Prodigal

Electra is in the park, in the golden nude evening, under the flush Midas light of late Autumn. Tomorrow is tempting, but this evening is still unmapped, potentially empty, reluctant as any landscape to succumb to perspective. The air just now is radiant, exalted with fire. If she closes her eyes she can see the wall, stripes of lemon across the uneven surface. Faint vicious words scratched into its surface, frustration texts: TWAT; Please kill me; my heart has never been this open; DIE; Think of this as a window.

The sun slipping out of the cloud, like shook foil, alerts her, snaps her out of a displace, and time suddenly speeds up so that it is soon much later. A boy is standing by the lake, lifting his arms to the sky, a pale halo of light about his head. Pale-eyed fractious seagulls circle above him, a solitary goose rises from the lake and beats its wings.

Rafael, Rafael, she calls to the boy, Rafael, I found it! You can come home! And it was so easy in the end, standing in the wreck. It wasn't as hard as we thought it would be. Rafael, look! It's me.

Her pleading voice sounds tiny in her ears, disproportionately small. But it, or the sudden wind looting the trees' gold, startles the deer. A stag. Havoc leaps in all their hearts, the stag runs straight at the boy who, like someone in a dream himself, looks up, and of course it isn't Rafael. There are no recesses in those walls. Boy falls. Water slates close in all the colours of shark over his thrashing arms, as the memorable dissolves into the irretrievable and Electra rushes forward into the ghastly present tense.

The Prodigal

Rafael, in his cell, imagines the blue door. There are no recesses in these walls, no alcoves. There is only surface, not even the illusion of depth. He has reached that place where all knowledge, belief, learning have dissolved, or resolved themselves into taboo. Outside, the same golden nude evening extends itself in voluptuous curves across an horizon chaotic with light. Even Rafael's cell, which is uniformly grey, is lit briefly with yellow stripes.  From here, Rafael does what he must do. He concentrates. He has turned himself into a pilgrim of perception, an acrobat of the mind, an illusionist. He recites the sad and subtle stories of the room to himself and fills it with untold richness. He is, after all, genetically predisposed to genius. His nails are grey, like old Russian silver. He is turning his cell, his cells, into his very own treasure trove. He is in a place beyond atlas and map. Now Rafael resides in the old country, the commanding landscape of memory, and he stalks through it, as though he is in a procession.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


Were I to have kissed him, it would have been on the day of ash, when I emerged from the chimney's velvet belly, my skin all glittery with mica and coal, and saw him, standing in the storybook kitchen, holding an impossible shoe against his heart, stricken with knowing. Well we cannot rectify it. Even fairy Godmothers cannot change the past. We never enjoyed the luxuries of the body. Not for us reckless necking on the back seat of a crystal coach, under the sly moon, violet with Novembral dusklight.

But if I had kissed him, it would have been then, with the precious gilt of a crown of light about his head, and his half-smile as he reached for one of the little pears in the white bowl. But the clock struck and we forgot to count the passing of time. And now he has gone.

Well then, let him go: said my stepmother, sewing me a gown of black waxed calico, fashioned from one of her discarded blackout blinds. Let him go, for you have grieved and wept, and it is enough. If he could have stopped it hopping he'd have fucked a frog.

But if I think on it now, trying to connect that day with this, I feel the rush and howl of a prince's soul longing to dwell in flesh and blood beneath the ballroom dome of the sky, and I wish, that black day, that I had understood the story better and kissed him.

Booker Longlist: The Sense of An Ending

Julian Barnes continues his engagement with the impact of grief and bereavement in The Sense of an Ending, an elegant, philosophical novel about dying and living. His writing is coolly incisive, and lit with insight into human nature. Taking his title from Frank Kermode's literary criticism which explores the ways in which writers use the technique of a surprising twist to confound the reader's suppositions about the novel, we can expect from the outset that this will be a novel which will leave us puzzling over its beginnings, going over the ground again, trying to see where it was we missed the clue that would have alerted us to the final twist in the tale. Curiously, for such a slight book (it extends to no more than 150 pages), it requires a prodigious act of memory from the reader to keep abreast of the subtleties of plot and character.
The novel begins with a list of remembered things, all of which are watery, and the last of which is imagined rather than remembered, thus flagging up for us the idea that memory is elusive, protean and foundational. The truth of a memory lies in its impact upon a life, not in its reliability. Memory is what we are. We make ourselves up out of what we remember, or out of what we try to forget. Barnes' narrator, Tony Webster, navigates the choppy waters of his memories and relationships with an engaging ruefulness, though he could have perhaps used a copy of Through the Looking Glass, wherein the Queen remarks: 'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.'
Kermode's book of essays suggests that we habitually impose false paradigms upon life and in particular, upon time, because it is in our very nature to do so: we are creatures inextricably devoted to plot. Time in its pure state is disorganised. We attempt to overcome this in fiction, and in life, by insisting upon a beginning, a middle and an end. Our plots, whether they are literary , political or personal, are the ways in which we try to make sense of chaos, but such sense is at best provisional. It creaks under pressure. "Time" Tony says "first grounds us and then confounds us".
Barnes writes with a particularly lucid economy and this is a novel which leaves you feeling you have drilled deep into remorse, understood something newly unsettling about mortality and  about the memorial propitiations that a life might require.

Booker Longlist: Far to Go

Alison Pick's novel Far to Go is a moving and powerful account of the provisionality of all the stories we tell ourselves about history and identity. Piecing together the fragmentary evidence that surfaces, years later, of the story of a Czech Jewish family in the lead up to the German Occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, she weaves a narrative that is both convincing and insistent that it is only one possible version of events. There is, for example, the unknown sibling, whose marginal story is only alluded to, and then unpicked. The fragments that persist are: a watch; a photograph; some lost letters; historical documents and that most conditional of evidences: memory. Holocaust novels tread a difficult line, in that it is hard to see what they can say that doesn't simply collapse into a condemnation of Nazi Germany. Pick though, offers us something else. Her narrative is unflinching, not only in its depiction of the way in which greed and insecurity made special spaces for Nazi ideology to flourish even in closely-knit communities, but also for the way in which ordinary people make mistakes out of hope, love, fear and desperation.
The story is in part narrated by Annaliese, a contemporary Holocaust researcher who has dedicated her life to uncovering the stories of the kindertransport children. She constructs the story of the Bauer family, a Sudeten-Czech secular Jewish family who send their little boy Pepik on the kindertransport to Scotland. Her story is an imaginative elaboration of their lives, motivations and compromises. The psychological faithfulness is both devastating and curiously enlarging. While in essence, we learn nothing new about the Holocaust, we do feel we know what we know in a newly truthful way. Surely, that is the one of the great purposes and pleasures of reading?