• Books and reading

    Family snapshots: ‘A Country of Eternal Light’ by Paul Dalgarno

    Reading this novel felt rather like flipping through a pile of family photo albums, with a member of that family sitting beside you and explaining the snapshots as you go.

    The person doing the explaining in the book is the protagonist, Margaret Byrne: estranged from her husband Harry, mother of adult twin daughters, loving grandmother to two little boys – and deceased since 2014.

    Margaret takes the reader through her memories, in no particular order, encompassing her childhood and youth in Aberdeen, Scotland, her years as wife and mother, her daughters’ grown-up lives and families in Australia and Spain, her diagnosis with cancer in 2012, subsequent treatment, and her death.

    She is, it seems, condemned to be an onlooker as events play out, those at which she was alive and present, and others where she is a mere observer. She is a wry, humorous commentator, all too aware of her own foibles and weaknesses and those of others. Especially after her death, when she longs to kiss or hold her grandsons, or speak to her daughters, but is obstructed by her lack of – well, a body or voice.

    The narrative is like a stream of consciousness, the sort that could very well occur as photos prompt reminiscences and anecdotes. Once I grew accustomed to the style of the novel, I found it delightful.

    There are reflections on family, living and dying: on children, change and growth, along with episodes that she would much rather forget:

    It’s amazing how completely you can block things out when you want or need to, and how deeply people can take this to heart… I felt ambushed – not by Rachel and not in that moment, but my preconceptions of her over the years, the sense that my instincts had been held repeatedly and unknowingly to ransom by my motherly myopia. I felt guilty for not seeing Rachel for what she was, blindsided and blind by my beautiful daughter.

    A Country of Eternal Light p186-187

    There are references to events that occurred after Margaret’s death: the Black Summer bushfires in Australia in the summer of 2019, for example, and the Covid pandemic soon after. Her bewilderment at observing people walking outside wearing face masks was a nice touch: we are so accustomed to this sight now, but what would an alien from Mars have made of Earthlings during the pandemic, I wonder?

    The single thing I did not like about this novel was the profound twist at the end, which (in the interests of not being a plot spoiler, I won’t divulge.) On reflection, I think it was there to make a point about the fragility of memory, and the different ways in which humans cope with grief.

    A Country of Eternal Light is essentially a book about vulnerability. I found it to be an immersive and thought-provoking novel, with vividly drawn character and settings, evocative prose, and moments of humour, sweetness and melancholy.

    A Country of Eternal Light is published by Fourth Estate in February 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Golden prose: ‘Tiny Uncertain Miracles’ by Michelle Johnston

    Michelle Johnston has written a novel from, and of, the heart. An author and an emergency physician with over thirty-one years’ experience, Tiny Uncertain Miracles encompasses the highs and lows of humans at a busy, underfunded public hospital, with a dash of faith and possible miracles, all wrapped up with a gift of golden prose.

    Marick, grief and guilt stricken after the loss of his child and his marriage, arrives as chaplain at a large hospital after losing his position in a neighboring church. Anyone who has worked for a large bureaucratic institution will recognise The Public: the slow grind of managerial wheels, the KPI’s which all staff (even the chaplain) have to meet, the ways in which the real work of the institution is done by those small cogs in the wheel, the background workers like the cleaners, orderlies and emergency medical staff who labour on, despite the grinding difficulties of their work environment.

    Marick meets Hugo, a hospital scientist who works alone in a basement laboratory he has created from a disused laundry room. Hugo convinces his new friend that the bacteria in his protein production process have begun to produce gold. Marick, aware of the deeply cynical role played by alchemists throughout history, is reluctant to believe what he sees – but Hugo is certain that the transformation is real.

    The novel is a deeply moving and often funny examination of people in all their messy glory: under pressure, in love, exhausted, hopeful, kind.

    Tiny Uncertain Miracles is unlike any novel I have read before. The characters, setting and storyline are unique; but what sets it apart is the glowing, beautiful prose:

    From here, the view of the river was unimpeded. This river, he knew, was ancient. Its own history was born in dreams and stories, and the land fed by it, soaking in it, was even older. Aquifers and blind animals and sacred burial grounds. Bones and antiquities, scars and excavations. Vaults and textures nobody thought to see. Past visitations of fire and ice. Borders. It was a question that never let up. How did the God of Rome square with the epochs of existence, the spiritual history below the soil here? It was a conundrum, overwhelming in its immensity.

    Tiny Uncertain Miracles p43

    Marick’s struggle with the idea of bacteria-producing gold is echoed in his personal life and his journey to – and from – spiritual faith. He questions everything and through this, the reader explores deep seams of human experience: what is love? faith? service? truth? hope?

    This is a hard book to categorise, but it will be enjoyed by readers who like to grapple with deep themes while engaging with characters brought to vivid life by a talented writer.

    Tiny Uncertain Miracles is published in November 2022 by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Fractured lives: ‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

    This memoir by New Zealand born- now Melbourne resident – Michelle Tom is already one of my standout reads of 2021. It cleverly, poetically, blends her story of family violence, love, and bitterness with the devastation of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011. She uses geology and seismology as metaphors to drill down into the strata of her family; its patterns of behaviour and unrest over generations.

    I had some initial confusion in the opening chapters, with their leaps across multiple timeframes, before I realised this is also a metaphor: for memory, and the way past events and feelings come to us in a mélange of seemingly unconnected scraps and layers.

    The book is divided into five sections, each one reflecting the different stages of an earthquake, the final one being the aftershocks of the title. And for each of these stages, she identifies a corresponding period or event in her family’s life. It is such a powerful way of looking at family and individual trauma.

    As children, she and her siblings were burdened with adult secrets they should never have had to hear. Regarding her sister Meredith, she says, in a passage reminiscent of the Victorian idea of dying from a broken heart:

    Some days the weight of daylight was too much, as she hid away in her darkened flat. She fought to carry the secret of her beginning from each day into the next, and several years before she died I realised that she was not really living. Her spirit was fractured, and she possessed no energy for anything other than mere existence.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks pp56-57

    The legacy left for successive generations by parents and grandparents who are emotionally immature, manipulative and volatile is laid clear.

    The descriptions of the earthquake itself and its aftermath are visceral and horrifying. My husband and I visited Christchurch in 2012 and saw evidence of the destruction it had caused, including mounds of strange mud that were left after the liquefaction that can happen during a major earthquake. Even this becomes part of the family metaphor:

    What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks p278

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is a profound and beautiful memoir, one I cannot recommend highly enough.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is published by Fourth Estate in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Whose stories can we tell? ‘The Truth About Her’ by Jacqueline Maley

    Jacqueline Maley is an award winning journalist and columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age whose work I have admired for some time. The Truth About Her is her debut novel and it’s a beauty. Literary, funny and sobering by turns, it takes familiar stories and situations and makes of them a wry, incisive commentary on modern life, motherhood and the nature of truth.

    The main character is Suzy, an almost-forty journalist whose professional and personal lives have both hit major snags. Her article exposing a fraudster, Tracey Doran, who claimed to have cancer which she cured by an organic diet and lifestyle, was published just before the young woman killed herself. Suzy experiences crippling guilt although friends and family reassure her that the suicide wasn’t her fault.

    At almost the same time her casual, secret sexual relationship with her (married) boss is exposed, so Suzy herself experiences the distress of public shaming and the online vitriol and abuse that goes with that. She quits her job and faces a bleak financial future as she tries to support her pre-school aged daughter, Maddy, as a single parent.

    Unexpectedly she is approached by Tracey’s grieving mother who asks her to write the story of her daughter’s life – on her terms. Suzy agrees and so begins a connection that is strange and fraught and laden with secrets and emotional burdens. Through it all, Suzy examines her own life, her beliefs about relationships, truth and the role of the journalist.

    This novel captures with devastating clarity the challenges and moments of joy in the life of a working single parent. Suzy has sudden flashes of what she calls ‘the parallel life’, in which her former partner, Maddy’s father, is still with them and they lead a ‘normal’, middle class life together, with enough money to pay the bills, and love and support for each other. Instead, Suzy’s sadness and confusion mean she has a barely-in-control lifestyle and constant worries about the future.

    The author paints with delicate and humorous brushstrokes the little details of a mother-daughter bond, the small moments of unadulterated love and joy along with the hefty dose of guilt that seems to accompany the parenting role:

    Often, when I inquired about the dolls, or the tiny bunnies, or the little mice, that Maddy was playing with, asking their names and how they were related to each other, Maddy would say ‘Dair mummy is at work.’ Even her toys were latchkey kids.

    The Truth About Her p64

    There were moments when I felt I knew Suzy – that we were friends, perhaps, catching up over a coffee and bemoaning the state of the world. Her take on so many aspects of our modern world – the ‘on demand’ nature of everything, from sex to television; the sad lack of noise-killing soft furnishings in restaurants; the carefully designed nature of corporate premises, just to name a few examples – felt so similar to my own, and many of her wry asides elicited knowing chuckles as I read. A strong theme in the novel is the nature of truth: in a world where people curate their own stories and images for public consumption yet give little away of their inner lives, it poses the question: can we ever truly know another person? And who has the right to tell their story?

    The relationships are beautifully drawn, including Suzy’s sometime lover, Tom, her critical mother Beverley, her loving and good humoured great-uncle Sam, Tracey’s mother Jan, and especially little Maddy – all become real people, alive on the page.

    As the story plays out and reaches its conclusion, Suzy has learnt some things about herself, about the other people in her life, and possibly also what life was for. I enjoyed this novel so much and I can’t wait to read Jacqueline Maley’s next offering.

    The Truth About Her is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    A beautiful book for the dark times: ‘Phosphorescence’ by Julia Baird

    …how do we endure when suffering becomes unbearable and our obstacles seem monstrous? How do we continue to glow when the lights turn out?…We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, every day, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within – our own phosphorescence.

    Phosphorescence p281

    This lovely book was a recent birthday gift from a dear friend (thank you Jennie!) and so timely after a year of tragedy and hardship at both the international and local levels. So many people I know have had a difficult year- economic worries, personal health challenges, suffering and death of loved ones, separation from people and places that they care about.

    So reading Julia Baird’s book was like applying a balm to raw damaged skin: soothing, calming, but also an invitation to think deeply about life and what really matters. In it, she talks a little about her own personal trials, especially her very serious health challenges, but the book is about much more than one person or one set of difficulties.

    It’s a broad ranging exploration of what gives joy, wonder, passion, hope, purpose; especially what keeps people going during the hard times. She includes themes such as the power of nature, connection and community, working to a purpose larger than ourselves, the role of beauty and silence, paying attention.

    Each theme is illustrated by examples from the author’s own life but also the lives of others from past and present times. I particularly enjoyed reading about her activism and that of others on issues like feminism, climate change, indigenous, Black or LGBTQI rights, and the environment. Comments on the need to maintain effort over the long term resonated for me, as someone who has at times despaired at the slow rate of change and the feeling that achieving social justice goals is a matter of ‘one step forward, several leaps back.’ As Baird says:

    You don’t walk away until the work is done.

    Phosphorescence p 101

    Most moving to me, however, were the two chapters she addresses to her daughter (Letter to a young woman) and son (Thoughts for my son: the art of savouring.) Such beautiful, wry, humorous and hopeful reflections from a mother to her children.

    Phosphorescence is a book to be savoured, enjoyed, mulled over and returned to again and again.

    It was published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in March 2020.

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