Tag Archives: Text Publishing

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure that I’d get on with Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here. While I’d quite enjoyed The Family Fang, the premise of his new novel seemed a little off the wall but Ann Patchett’s hymn of praise swung it for me. Wilson’s novel tells the story of a young woman, still reeling from the betrayal by her best friend which wrecked her life, who nevertheless responds to that friend’s call for help. It’s also about two children who burst into flames when agitated.

Raised by a mother who hardly seems to care for her at all, Lillian is determined to make the most of her chances, studying hard and winning a scholarship to Tennessee’s Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School. Once there, she’s shunned by all the rich girls apart from her roommate Madison – almost as much a misfit as Lillian but adept at appearing otherwise – with whom she becomes besotted. When Madison is caught in possession of cocaine, Lillian takes the rap, returning home resigned to a life of dead-end jobs and living with her indifferent mother, punctuated by a desultory correspondence with Madison whose life she watches from a far – first marriage to a senator followed swiftly by the birth of a son. A decade or so later, Madison calls her with the offer of a job as a governess to Jasper’s twins from his second marriage after the death of their mother. An odd request, given Lillian’s total lack of experience with children, but this is no ordinary childcare position. Jasper is about to be vetted as a possible secretary of state. He needs the utmost discretion and his children have the strangest of disorders: when agitated they burst into flames, causing havoc around them but no harm to themselves. Such is Lillian’s devotion to Madison and the depth of her misery at home she agrees, but first she must get Bessie and Rowland to trust her.

Given those last few sentences you can see why I might have thought Wilson’s funny, heartrending and wholly original novel might not be for me but I’m delighted Patchett’s puff persuaded me. The story is told through Lillian’s funny, often snarky voice as she tries to find ways to keep Bessie and Roland fire-free, offering them the love and security that, like her, they’ve sorely lacked despite having no clue how to set about it. Wilson takes a multitude of digs at the rich and powerful who outsource their inconvenient child-rearing elsewhere, determined not to let embarrassing eccentricities get in the way of their ambitions. At the same time, he makes clear that the disadvantaged can be equally remiss in raising their children. Everyone, it seems gets in wrong, some more spectacularly than others. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel whose sardonic tone mellows as Lillian and the twins grow to love each other. If the prospect of spontaneously combusting children puts you off, I’d ignore it. You soon get used to the idea.

Text Publishing: London 2020 9781922268334 288 pages Paperback

The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones: Love, death and art

Cover imageI was a little wary of Gail Jones’ new novel, having been somewhat disappointed by A Guide to Berlin a few years back. All the poetic elegance of Sorry and Sixty Lights was present and correct but it felt a bit strained to me. The Death of Noah Glass flows much more smoothly. When the eponymous art historian is found drowned, his children find their own ways of coping – or not coping – with a grief complicated by the suggestion that their father may have been involved in something nefarious. Encompassing a multitude of themes, Jones’ novel explores the circumstances that led up to Noah’s death.

Martin and Evie rarely see each other. They have little in common besides their father. After his wife died in the early years of their marriage, Noah had taken his children to live close to her family. They became the centre of his life, yet they never knew it. Stunned by his death, each tries to find a way to the other, yearning for the connection they shared in their childhood. Evie moves into Noah’s flat ostensibly to clear it but hoping to find the essence of him there. Martin takes off for Sicily where Noah had spent three months shortly before his death, apparently to investigate the implication of Noah’s involvement in an art theft but desperate to try to understand the man he feels he hardly knew. There he meets Dora with whom Noah had fallen deeply in love and with whom he became embroiled in a scheme to wreak revenge on the criminals who murdered her father.

These are the bare bones of this beautifully wrought, erudite novel which encompasses themes of art, love, grief and family with a slim thread of suspense running through it. Noah’s story is woven through Evie’s and Martin’s, slotting them into the context of their motherless childhoods and his own difficulties as the son of missionaries while disclosing details of his time in Sicily to which his children will never be privy. It’s a complex piece of fiction, carefully assembled and exquisitely executed. Jones’ descriptions of Sicily, seen through Martin’s painterly eye, are particularly vivid and her evocation of the loneliness and dislocation of grief eloquent:

Goats’ heads hung suspended above huge trays of offal. Swordfish were displayed in an arc, balanced among gigantic pink octopuses and rows of lustrous fish. Blood oranges, cut open, forests of emerald broccoli.

 And so Evie and Benjamin, both reticent and private, both wretched, in some ways, with the experience of loss, began to speak to each other.

I was reminded a little of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved which, coming from me, is high praise indeed.

Sisters by Lily Tuck: A tale of obsession

It took me a mere ninety minutes to read Lily Tuck’s Sisters which might lead you to think it’s a slight, inconsequential piece of fiction but that’s far from the case. A sharp psychological study of obsession with a neat sting in its tail, it’s completely riveting.

Our unnamed narrator is married to a man with whom she started an affair after meeting him at a dinner party his first wife chose not to attend. They’ve been married for some time, long enough for her to have seen her stepson from early teenage years through to graduation and help her stepdaughter choose her wedding dress. She’s obsessed with his first wife: taking her stepson’s text book across town to get a glimpse of her apartment; calling her on the phone, then hanging up; researching her old piano teacher. How happy was this woman whose photograph she sees every day? What is her life-like now? How did she feel about burying her musical talent in housewifery? Was she better in bed? A litany of speculation preoccupies our narrator about her predecessor, so different from herself.

Tuck’s novella is made up of a series of short fragments, often just a few lines occupying the entire page.  A great deal is left unsaid and yet a picture emerges of a woman caught up in an obsession, at once unsettling and understandable. The writing is pinpoint sharp, the depth of obsession beautifully conveyed:

In the photo of her pushing the baby carriage down Avenue Foch in Paris, it was hard to tell – even with a magnifying glass – whether she looked happy.

Tuck’s ability to convey characters while saying barely anything about them is remarkable. The two wives emerge as far more interesting than their self-absorbed, insensitive husband. The connection our narrator yearns for with his first wife far deeper than the one she shares with him. This is such an elegant, quietly devastating piece of fiction. Inevitably, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca springs to mind and is given a polite nod by our narrator:

I dreamed – not that I went back to Manderley – that I was in a big city like Calcutta or Bombay in India.

I’ve been left wanting to read as many of Tuck’s novels I can get my hands on.

Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down: Learning to look after yourself

Cover imageThis book was actually published here in the UK at the very tail end of 2016 – I hope that won’t mean that it falls through the Christmas/New Year coverage cracks because it deserves attention. Our Magic Hour is Jennifer Down’s debut and comes from Australian publishers Text Publishing whose books I’ve learnt to look out for. Someone there has a sharp eye for talent as Down’s novel amply demonstrates. It follows twenty-four-year-old Audrey for just over a year after her best friend Katy kills herself, exploring the devastation of grief and loss through a group of young people, suddenly made aware of their own vulnerability.

Audrey and Katy have been best friends since school, part of a tight-knit circle who prop each other up at parties, dry each others’ tears and share each others’ good and bad times. Audrey has always been the responsible one; a violent alcoholic father, remembered fondly by her bipolar mother, and a younger brother who seems in danger of going off the rails have made sure of that. When her dearest friend dies, it’s Audrey who looks out for everyone else, listening patiently to Adam’s distressed middle-of-the-night calls and visiting Katy’s parents, while her partner Nick tries to take care of her. Unnoticed by herself, Audrey slowly falls apart while trying to keep everyone else from doing the same. When the crisis finally comes, she decides to strike out on her own, leaving her job as a social worker in Melbourne and finding one in Sydney on a paediatric cancer ward. Audrey is determined to try to make a life for herself but it’s hard, lonely work with missteps along the way.

Written from Audrey’s point of view, Our Magic Hour is a masterclass in elegant understatement. There are no histrionics here: Audrey quietly descends into a black depression as Nick looks helplessly on. Down’s writing is so restrained that, like Audrey, we’re brought up short when details let slip alert us to her state of mind. Its quiet intimacy draws us into Audrey’s circle making the loneliness of her life in Sydney all the more wrenching but it can also be wonderfully vivid: the exuberant Adam has ‘lungfuls of stories to tell’; Emy is ‘just on the safe side of a really lavish vomit’ at her leaving party and Claire describes making scones as ‘just flour and milk and sugar and cream. You chuck it all in there, and beat it like it owes you money’. Our Magic Hour could very easily have been an overwhelmingly bleak novel but Down steers it neatly clear of that. It’s about the way in which friendship can help you through the darkest of times, about resilience and learning when to reach out, and it ends on a note of hope which brought me to tears. A very fine novel indeed – compassionate, clear-sighted and lovely. I’m looking forward to seeing what Down comes up with next.

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond: Two love stories in one

Cover imageMidge Raymond’s My Last Continent caught my eye when I was busy perusing the July publishing schedules for a preview post. It’s set mainly in Antarctica, a backdrop shared by two other novels that I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed: Favel Parret’s tale of the 1987 Nella Dan disaster, When the Night Comes, and Rebecca Hunt’s Everland which recounts two expeditions separated by a century. I was hoping for more glorious descriptions of the Antarctic landscape and Raymond delivers them beautifully in her moving story of Deb and Keller, drawn to each other by their mutual love for this desolate yet majestic continent.

Close to forty and unmarried, Deb is a researcher for a project examining the effects of climate change and tourism on penguins. She’s something of a loner, more at home on the ice observing her beloved birds than at the parties her Oregon landlord throws. Ironically, her annual research trips are funded by her work as a tour guide aboard the Cormorant, educating tourists about the impact of their behaviour on the environment. She’s all too well aware that her own research increases the penguins’ anxiety as much as the presence of tourists during their heavily supervised excursions. It’s on one of these trips that she meets Keller who has turned his back on his career as a lawyer. These two see each other only during their summer research stints – Deb hoping for something more, Keller still untethered after the loss of his daughter. One summer Keller fails to appear on the Cormorant, dropped after overstepping the mark in expressing his views to a passenger. When the book opens we know there will be a shipwreck and that the death toll will be heavy but we don’t know who will die.

There are two narrative strands running through Raymond’s novel: one unfolding Deb’s story, taking us back and forth over twenty years; the other, her account of the weeks leading up to the shipwreck. Raymond’s writing has a quiet, contemplative tone which contrasts sharply with the dramatic suspense of the shipwreck scenes. The love story between Deb and Keller is deftly handled, properly grown up in its acknowledgement of the tensions between them, but this is not simply a novel about two lovers – it’s a passionate tribute to the no longer pristine Antarctic icescape and the fauna that inhabits it. Raymond is never sentimental in her descriptions but it’s impossible not to be moved by her recurring image of the ‘flipper dance’ with which Emperor penguin mates greet each other after a long separation ending with an ecstatic cry, echoing Deb and Keller’s encounters. Her novel is full of arresting images – icebergs the size of skyscrapers, a zebra-striped monochrome island – conjuring up a world of stark beguiling beauty where the slightest slip can result in death. Raymond weaves her research lightly through her writing; there’s no bludgeoning the reader with polemic but the awareness of the environment’s fragility is always there. Enlightening, absorbing and moving, it’s a damn good read which succeeded in transporting me into a very different world from the one outside my door on what was then the hottest day of the year.

Demons: Truth and lies

DemonsIn Boccaccio’s The Decameron ten young people take to the hills to escape the Black Death devastating Florence. To entertain themselves they spin tales, some erotic, some tragic, others funny: a reflection of life as it was lived then. It’s an attractive structure: Jane Smiley used it in Ten Days in the Hills as did Julia Voznesenskaya in The Women’s Decameron, both critiques of the two societies in which they’re set. Wayne Macauley has picked it up for his new novel set in an isolated house on Australia’s Great Ocean Road to which seven well-heeled, middle-aged friends have taken themselves to tell stories.

Lauren kicks off with her tale of middle-aged marital discontent and adultery, then Hannah takes up the baton with her story of a young girl seemingly allergic to the modern world. Evan can’t restrain himself, although it’s time for bed, telling Adam about his daughter’s relationship with a border official his own age. The next day, with a storm raging outside, Leon relates meeting an old university friend who plunges back into radical street politics, disenchanted with his comfortable life; Marshall tells the story of a political colleague caught up in a case of Aboriginal squatting; Megan comes up with a novel solution to hospital waiting lists told to her by a nurse and Adam’s offering is a tale of city folk whose dreams of a rural idyll have to be fulfilled at any price. Meanwhile, Marshall’s teenage daughter lurks discontentedly in the background, apparently distraught at her uncle’s suicide. A game of Truth or Dare rounds off the storytelling throwing much of what’s gone before into question.

Through the seven friends’ tales, Demons holds a mirror up to Australian society and its reflection is unflattering to say the least, although lest we get too smug much of it’s familiar from our own society in the UK – hospital waiting lists, property prices and the obsession they engender, instant gratification, etc. etc. Macauley’s novel is entertaining and his characterisation strong but there’s not much to be cheerful about here. I know that many of us are a little too forgetful of our privileged lives in the developed world and need a little reminding of it but I yearned for some brightness to shine through the gloom. That said, it’s a novel that leaves a strong impression – I’ll be chewing it over for some time. And if anyone knows of any other variations on The Decameron, I’d love to hear about them.

The Lost Child by Suzanne McCourt: Best read when cheerful

The Lost ChildI’ve read some sad books this year – I Refuse and Academy Street spring to mind – but none as sad as Suzanne McCourt’s The Lost Child set in small town Australia. At one stage I thought I might have to give it up but her writing is so impressive that I decided to tough it out. So there it is, a fine book but with a health warning.

Sylvie is both the eponymous lost child and its narrator. She’s almost five when the novel opens: bright, obsessed with the Phantom comics her older brother Dunc hoards and constantly on the lookout for trouble between her parents. It’s the 1950s: the Second World War is still fresh in everyone’s memory although her father rarely talks about it. He’s at odds with his brother, angry, violent and plays away with That Trollop, as her mother calls his mistress. Gossip at Burley Point points to the bombing of Darwin and what he saw there to explain his bad behaviour. Sylvie keeps her head down, follows Dunc around, sneaking into his bedroom to catch up with the Phantom when he’s not there. Dunc’s disappearance after Sylvie lets slip a dark truth about her father is a hammer blow. McCourt’s novel follows Sylvie through her parents’ divorce, her mother’s breakdown and her father’s spiteful cruelty, through tragedy and the odd glimmer of hope until, aged fifteen she reluctantly leaves the town where she grew up.

It’s a brave thing to tell your story through the voice of a character beginning when she’s five but McCourt carries it off expertly which is what makes her novel so powerful. Sylvie’s watchful puzzlement at her parents’ imploding marriage, her attempts to make sense of the adult conversations which say more than they should and the awfulness of being marked out by poverty and divorce at school are all the more vivid told through her own voice. McCourt manages the transition through the years brilliantly: Sylvie is as convincing at fifteen as she was at five. And lest you think it’s all doom and gloom – there are some wonderful comic moments: Sylvie’s abduction of a particularly beautiful ‘kitten’ when the circus comes to town is beautifully done. It’s quite an achievement, so much so that I had to double-check to make sure it was a first novel which indeed it is.

The Train to Paris: More than just a romp

The Train to ParisThere’s a curiously old-fashioned feel to Sebastian Hampson’s debut. It’s about a naïve gauche young man about to start his art history studies at the Sorbonne and his encounter with an older, sophisticated woman who decides to make something of him. The press release suggests Brief Encounter and there’s certainly a cinematic feel about Hampson’s descriptions of Biarritz and Paris but while it begins as a bright, slightly comic romp things take a darker turn edging more towards Les Liaisons Dangereuses territory, de Laclos’s masterly eighteenth century classic novel.

Lawrence, our twenty-year-old narrator, is making his way back to Paris after meeting his girlfriend in Madrid. He muses on their relationship, unable to understand quite why they haven’t yet slept together, comparing himself with his altogether more worldly flatmate with whom he went to school back in New Zealand. Set to change trains in a small Basque town he finds that the French railways have been hit by a strike. There are no free seats on the only two trains to Paris over the weekend. While debating with himself what to do he spies a glamorous, beautifully turned out woman, clearly considerably older than him. They fall into conversation and almost against his will, Lawrence finds himself on a jaunt to Biarritz, installed in a luxurious hotel with Élodie who spends much of her time cajoling him about his manners, his clothes, his girlfriend and his dullness while introducing him to what she sees as the finer side of life. An adventure has begun.

Lawrence’s slightly pompous, gaucheness is particularly well drawn. His eagerness to show off his knowledge of art history, frequently dropping in references to paintings and architecture, nicely awkward, but what kept my interest in this novel was the relationship between the two main protagonists. Just what is Élodie up to? Who is she and how does she manage to live on champagne and foie gras without any visible means of support? What’s her relationship with the enjoyably sleazy Ed Selvin? What is she hoping to get out of this seemingly Trilby/Svengali relationship with Lawrence? Is she quite what she seems? Some, although not all, of these questions are answered but that’s not entirely the point. The novel is as much about the way in which Lawrence is changed by his encounter and what it means for his future life. It’s an interesting spin on the conventional older man/younger woman dynamic and I wondered how I would have felt if the genders had been reversed. An enjoyable novel, then, and one which turned out to be more thought-provoking than I’d expected. I’ll look forward to seeing what Hampson does next.

Floundering by Romy Ash: Leading the way to more Australian writing

Cover imageRomy Ash’s Floundering comes shortlisted for what must be just about every Australian literary prize there is, including the Miles Franklin Award which most of us literary poms have heard of. Aside from Tim Winton and Peter Carey, I don’t read much Australian fiction mainly, I suspect, because not much is published in the UK but that may change as this is the first book from the antipodean Text Publishing to be distributed here. If Floundering is a taste of what’s available their books are well worth seeking out, particularly as this one’s published straight into affordable paperback. It’s described in the press release as ‘powerful debut fiction’, a phrase which sets my sceptic antenna twitching – are they ever anything else? – but this one lives up to its description.

It begins as a road trip. Loretta swings by her parents’ home to pick up her two sons, Tom and Jordy, who she’d left on their doorstep a year ago because ‘things just got complicated’. They get in her car, not quite knowing what’s in store, and she drives off with not a word to their Gran and Pa. They’re on the road for days: what’s needed along the way is shoplifted; they sleep in the car; the heat is suffocating; insects bite mercilessly but Tom, who narrates the novel, manages to remain cheerful although increasingly uneasy and at times downright scared. His initial acceptance gives way to a terrible worry – where will he pee, what will they eat, where will they sleep. He and his older brother Jordy bicker while Loretta – never to be called Mum – chivvies them, often hung over, sometimes drinking at the wheel. They finally arrive at a campsite where Loretta slowly unravels, the heat bounces off everything and their next door neighbour Nev, can’t stand to have little boys around. Things go from bad to worse.

Through Tom’s voice, Ash manages to capture the panicky fear of an eleven-year-old boy unsure of what his increasingly chaotic and unpredictable mother will do next. Her writing is clean and crisp, punctuated with images made all the more striking for that. The all-pervasive heat of the Australian west coast is palpable, and if at first the reason for Nev’s surliness seems a little predictable,  Ash handles it well enough to avoid hackneyed cliché. It really is a powerful debut and it had me gripped to the end, dreading what horrors Tom and Jordy were about to meet.