I’m going to talk about two novels which, now I’ve had time to reflect on them, seem to me to stand at opposite ends of the spectrum so far as contemporary fiction goes. I’m aware that there’s a large element of chance, or serendipity, in my choice: I was sent two books for review by the Sydney Morning Herald; they could easily have been two others. But their differences have got me thinking. One is published by an independent Australian publisher, Freemantle Press; one by Little, Brown, and ear-marked, well before its release date, as a bestseller. Both are written in the present tense.
I felt a growing sense of recognition, and a growing delight, as I progressed through Iris Lavell’s debut novel, Elsewhere in Success. Good on you, Iris, and good on you Freemantle, I thought. Here was a narrative that did not sound self-satisfied; ambiguity and a sense of life’s mysteries were embedded in the prose.
The novel progresses though unspectacular moments of connection and disconnection, as the seasons follow one another in a Perth suburb called ‘Success’. (For readers unfamiliar with Perth, there really is one.) It would be easy to overlook the courage and integrity Lavell brings to every page and how each scene is worth re-reading. Elsewhere in Success is a brave book, though it doesn’t flaunt its courage. Readers looking for gaudy linguistic performances will be disappointed. Indeed, one of the character’s reflections could be taken to refer to the author’s style. ‘Everything is exaggerated these days, super-sized they call it, as if everything isn’t already big enough.’
The metaphors are subtle and effective: my favourite is a statue of the Buddha. There is a symmetry to the statue’s appearances, and readers don’t need to be students of Buddhist teachings to understand either his importance, or the protagonist, Louisa’s, ability, finally, to let him go. The statue has a chip in his big toe, which begins to disappear almost magically once he’s in her garden. ‘Dirt was covering it and a petal from the rose had bandaged it.’ In the end, the statue is smashed to pieces by what Louisa believes to be a meteorite, but is only a tennis ball.
As is the way of these things, Elsewhere in Success led me back to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a novel I have re-read many times, for Robinson’s sentence about how facts explain nothing: it’s the facts which need explaining. I finally found the lines I was looking for three-quarters of the way through, but this didn’t matter because each time Housekeeping has something new to teach me.
At over 550 pages, Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty is epic in scale and ambition. I have asked myself if the marketing hype that began months before the novel’s release, the certainty that, no matter what the book was like, Blood & Beauty would be a bestseller, simply made me jealous. I don’t think that’s true, though when fiction writers are also regular reviewers they must contend with jealousy.
The great challenge for writers of historical fiction is to convey a deep sense of the otherness of past lives, while making them comprehensible and interesting to modern readers. This task is made especially difficult when the author’s chosen subject is the Borgia family of fifteenth century Italy, a subject that has been approached from every conceivable angle and across a wide range of media that includes a popular television series. What is there left to say?
When thinking about the review, I tried looking at the challenge another way. A British novelist writing in the twenty-first century about a powerful dynastic family of the fifteenth has a perfect opportunity to write both from the outside and the inside. The outside is provided by history; the well documented battles, schemes, arranged marriages and murders. Dunant succeeds with this important aspect of her story; with her accounts of war, pageantry, and other panoramic scenes. Thus far, the novel offers readers what a well-written history would offer them.
But what of the ‘inside’ story, that which historians can’t know? The last few decades have seen a different kind of renaissance, one arguably led by British writers, returning the historical novel to literature’s centre stage, and encouraging experiments with narrative form and language that previous generations of fiction writers would never have been able to get away with.
But cruelty, violence and greed are not, in themselves, particularly interesting qualities; or, to state Dunant’s ‘inside’ challenge in a different way, psychopaths tend to be one-dimensional. Spreading Cesare and Alexander Borgia’s nastiness over five hundred pages runs the risk of becoming tedious, to say the least. The Borgia males lack the inner conflict that makes for psychological interest, and Dunant has not created any sustained alternative viewpoint that might offer readers the occasional surprise, or injection of the unexpected.
I thought a lot about historical novels while I was reading this one. I went back to The Birth of Venus, the first of Dunant’s ‘Renaissance’ novels which made her famous internationally, and tried to work out why I thought it was a better book than Blood & Beauty. I decided that it was because the main characters were more fully developed and more interesting. I got out A.S. Byatt’s On Histories and Stories. Dunant isn’t included in Byatt’s fascinating discussion of the revival of historical fiction in the UK. But once I’d begun re-reading the essays in this excellent book, I kept going, drawn along by Byatt’s prose and the intelligence informing it.
Byatt talks about the present tense, and the use of what she calls ‘the historical present’, but she is writing before this tense became so popular. The present tense is supposed to bring readers right up close to the action, to make them feel that they are part of actions that are happening right now, even if they’re imaginary actions taking place five hundred years ago. The word ‘immediacy’ is often used on cover blurbs. But I have never, either within an individual review, or the discussion that goes on around them, found anybody making a case as to why immediacy, conceived in this way, is important. One of the things about fashions is that, once they take hold, they become ‘natural’, just the way it’s done. Yet Iris Lavell, whose scale is so modest by comparison, takes this fashion and turns it into something special.
Dorothy Johnston’s ebook collection of short stories, Eight Pieces On Prostitution is available now for $9.95 from Authors Unlimited.