During my adolescence I read almost nothing. I lived on farms. When I was 19 someone gave me a copy of Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector and it blew my head off.
White’s style captured me, his acerbic poetry and mordant (almost cruel) representations of art and artists and society people in Sydney. Characters come and go in vivid takes and take-downs (by the author) in what I later realised was White’s typical satire and grotesquerie—the latter as a kind of gothic lightning.
I had realised the style of authorial narration. I woke as a reader …
Recently, I fell for the intensities of Eimear McBride in A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians. The former adopts the voice of a young girl-woman but reads as a body of linguistic nerve twitches, a private language arising in present time (or is it timelessness?). This psychic world is sometimes un-recognisable, its statement and imagery more a place of trauma, memory, reaction, conflict, than of day-lit life.
Not story, not even character as action, this is style as character.
This visceral consciousness speaks itself but not to us, the readers, nothing as casual and taken for granted as that; it manifests in dialogical encounter between self and utterance as both agon and urgency, as a reaching through the self to life, to fiercely assert itself and escape.
The Lesser Bohemians has a less crushed style in this sense, clearly the same overall manner but pitched lower, relaxing into a more linear narrative and a more recognisable daily life. There is the same Irish vernacular and pithiness, the hard humour and the nicely sour observations of self and others. Not lesser for that, though.
More recent and lively is Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends which is, as they say, a contemporary love story (? a boldly messy one ?) between a younger woman and a suave, older and … married man. Nick is rich and established and Frances is cool and intellectual but led against her denials by desire for him. It’s a book driven by dialogue and by Frances in tangles of introspection, where much of the dramatic irony becomes obvious. She is free and beginning life but her desire leads her into and out of and back towards the affair/attraction that she might well have left alone. The man is a classic literary problem, superficial and, ironically, just as much out of his depth. Frances, for all her learning and cool, is emotionally wayward, exactly the geometry that makes the encounters and the introspection so fresh.
A book set within the Troubles of Northern Ireland, Anna Burns’ Milkman is for me, the stronger (and stranger) read. (I like strange.) It begins:
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.
The narrator is referred to as Middle Sister, but is otherwise un-named. This young woman keeps the world at arms-length by reading books as she walks around the city. She must negotiate all the massed powers of intense tribalism: politics, religion, family, patriarchy, the right position taken, the right as against the wrong person/s to be affiliated with. All these forces are carried and distorted by dangerous currents of gossip. Misunderstanding is just as dangerous as actual betrayal. The pressure on the text is considerable as Burns develops and sustains an extraordinary tension, even fear, for the main character while keeping the reader utterly enthralled. Middle Sister is shadowed by this Somebody McSomebody. All around her assume she has been having an affair with him, the wrong man, while the Milkman threatens to kill her actual boyfriend if she continues seeing him. The deadpan absurdity of Middle Sister’s stoic existence is played against the scariness of her daily anxiety. And ours. It is also weirdly funny, verbally rich in music, driven by vernacular and slant in terms of characters and circumstance. You never really know what’s likely to happen.
Good books are drugs. Books are controlled hallucinations. Reading is the hallucination, but the book is the drug. It just works differently for different people. Some get high, some take the whole dose and nothing happens.
I tried reading The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna but put it down after encountering her first person child-who-is-smart narrator. I just don’t like authors inhabiting child characters and making them more insightful, intelligent and linguistically advanced than many adults. A month or so later I gave Laguna’s book another go, tolerated my prejudice and read every word. It is a brilliant book. It works against a reader like me because Jimmy Flick, the boy narrator, is only intermittently perceptive and smart and much of the time he is attractively odd, slant, sui generis, and he gets things painfully wrong; his thinking-speaking as narration is idiosyncratic and a strangely effective (and affecting) poetry.
I have no interest in fantasy writing and little tolerance for historical novels and yet I opened Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck. It is both. An alien life form comes to earth and manifests as an octopus but she is in fact (?) a woman and a shape-changer. In 1859 she saves George from drowning off the coast of South Australia and the novel follows these two unlikely nineteenth century lovers in ways that are inventive, lyrical, strange (of course) and tender. I felt the remarkable and imaginative vision of this book and realised how lightly Rawson sustained her knowing speculations as matter-of-fact real. From the Wreck not only tells a gripping (publisher tick) story but speaks a poetic sensuality and double-ness of being, where the human and the other (as beings) come to feel naturally empathetic and loving of each other—a magical/multiple state.
One book often leads me into a nest of like books. After reading Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor on the role of the East India Company in the plunder of India I bought and read The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, another work on the same saga of bastardries. Tharoor’s book establishes a long historical account and is extremely thorough. The Company was not, as I had assumed, backed by the British Army; it was an early (and extreme) exemplar or corporate warfare. The EIC was escalating its business and its profits while making its shareholders wealthy. These shareholders were often politicians safely seated in (and who mostly never left) England.
Firstly, the Company subverted India’s extraordinary trade wealth (in the seventeenth century India held almost 25% of the world’s trade) by ruining its industry. Indian cloth was the finest in the world but the Company wanted the textile market and literally smashed the hand looms Indian textiles were made on. Secondly, the strategy of ‘divide and rule’ became synonymous with British rule. The Company played one Empire and one kingdom against another in a relentless incursion into Indian territory, pushed by the Company’s own leading-edge militia to train and arm whichever power group they wanted to favour. Thus India degenerated into cycles of civil war.
Inglorious Empire is factual and detailed across a timeline and is mind-bending. A relentless tale of awfulness and greed and murder. The Anarchy moves into close focus on the individuals involved in this increasing division and chaos. The historical betrayals exist at many different levels and the writerly intelligence in Dalrymple’s writing becomes Shakespearean: we read the persons, their backgrounds, their psychology and much of their lives. The drama is human, the anarchy is not abstract but bloody. The book is novelistic. A major work.
Immediately after reading these two non-fiction accounts I read Ants Among Elephants a wonderful novel by Sujatha Gidla, who was born an Untouchable. This fictionalised account of her own family reveals in extraordinary calm and expansiveness the dire conditions and the inescapable horrors of the caste system, which was not widespread until the British established it as the system (of control and coercion). A novel of close-up detail, days of work, ordeal, schooling against the odds (as untouchables were not eligible for schooling … unless extremely bright and favoured by someone). Empathy, tenderness. Among the bereft, the blessed.
The second great nesting I entered in 2020 was polyphonic—two tomes by Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich. The Unwomanly Face of War is astonishingly moving and thrilling, a fervent-heroic account of the lives of the Russian women who served at the front against Germany in the Second World War. Told entirely in their own words, these swathes of individual accounts—verbatim descriptions and confessions—are like their own army. Brave, selfless, compassionate and heart-breaking, ending not by war but by Stalin’s tragic damning of these women on their return.
Secondhand Time is again polyphonic, verbatim voices of the people after the dissolution of the USSR. Eye-opening and deeply sad.
And Tracker, again a polyphonic book but in this case oral testimonies by many people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, of their encounters with one extraordinary man—Tracker Tilmouth. This is Alexis Wright’s loving and often hilarious homage to a great man and incorrigible larrikin. The always astonishing Tracker was larger-than-life and hugely significant in Land Rights and pastoral acquisition in central Australia. A man who did things few others could and in ways few could imagine.
Philip Salom’s recent novels The Returns and Waiting were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and several other awards. His earlier poetry received international acclaim. His 2020 novel is The Fifth Season.