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This is an oldie but a goodie. Published in 1924, it is the fourth of the Richard Hannay stories – or ‘shockers’ as he called them, though there is nothing we would find shocking about them. What he probably meant was that they were intended to be light and popular – a ‘romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’. It was perhaps his self-deprecating way of excusing a shocking lapse of taste by a writer who thought his best works were his histories and biographies.

Richard Hannay – now Sir Richard – is comfortably established on his country estate with his wife – Mary, from the previous Hannay book, Mr Standfast (1919) – and young son. His old boss in the Foreign Office warns him that he is about to be asked to undertake ‘a troublesome piece of business’, and sure enough, he is approached by Julius Victor, who wants Hannay’s help in finding his daughter who has been kidnapped. Hannay refuses. His old friend Macgillivrary from Scotland Yard also solicits his help, explaining  that there have been three kidnappings and that they  are part of a much larger conspiracy, the only clues to which lie in some lines of apparent doggerel. Hannay is still unmoved.  But guess what? He finally agrees to help.

Buchan describes the story as ‘a pure contest of wits’. This isn’t quite true, because the first steps towards solving the puzzle of the apparent doggerel rely on the subconscious, a concept that had become quite fashionable by the nineteen twenties. Buchan is also interested in ‘the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world … a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning ’. This arises in the context of a discussion of detective fiction, which I’ve always found fascinating in light of this story. Hannay’s friend Dr Greenslade explains that normally, detective fiction writers fix on the solution first, and then invent a problem to suit it. They think of several apparently unconnected facts or events, and devise a connection. ‘The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively.’ But Greenslade says that the old forms of detective writing are no longer convincing because the ‘argus-eyed, lightning-brained expert’ can’t take account of the ‘pukka madness’ that now results in crime. So how far is Buchan following the old prescription of inventing the connection between apparently disparate events, and how far is his hero coming to terms with madness and moral dislocation? Is he perhaps writing a new kind of mystery fiction from which a line may be traced to the current crop of psychological crime and serial killer thrillers?

I have previously written disparagingly of Dornford Yates’s 1920s upper-class-twits-of-the-year style heroes, and I have to admit that Buchan and his hero Hannay are both an unquestioning part of the British upper middle class. This may grate on some readers, as may various other of his prejudices. For example, Julius Victor is described as ‘the whitest Jew since the Apostle Paul’. Moral degeneracy is ascribed to ‘the classes that shirked the war – you see it in Ireland’. Among the ‘moral imbeciles’, are found ‘young Bolshevik Jews, the younger entry of the wilder communist sects, and … the sullen murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland.’ It doesn’t make it any better that these racial and political stereotypes are the tools of the real villains, whose only ends are wealth and power. On the other hand ‘cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion’ doesn’t seem a bad description of Hitler and his leading Nazis, or Stalin and his acolytes, so maybe Buchan’s ideas about moral dislocation weren’t just a reflection of his prejudices.

The story is undoubtedly melodramatic. Hannay’s helpers in solving the mystery – his wife Mary and his old friend Sandy Arbuthnot – are both too good to be true, to say nothing of too clever. So is it worth reading this old stuff? I still enjoy the way the plot is worked through. Maybe my pleasure in the book is just nostalgia, since for all Buchan’s attempts to introduce psychology into the story, it really is still just a classic adventure story like all the Hannay books. But in my view, no less worth reading for that, particularly if you are interested in the history and development of the thriller.

While Buchan’s books The Thirty Nine Steps and to a lesser extent Greenmantle are much better known, The Three Hostages is readily available on Amazon, and Project Gutenberg. You can read about Buchan here, including his time as Governor General of Canada, and there is a John Buchan Society, found here. And here is another blogger who more or less agrees with me about the book.

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It’s purely by chance that I’m reviewing yet another book about magic (see The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago). I don’t have a particular interest in magic – far from it. In fact I feel rather like the reviewer of The Night Circus (2011) in the Guardian who, being ‘resistant to historical fiction … hostile to whimsy, and beyond impatient with the fantastical’, might have been expected to hate it, only to find it enchanting. Because I enjoyed it too.

Set in the 1880s through to the early twentieth century, The Night Circus is about the competition between two magicians to establish which of their magical techniques is superior. Their rivalry is of long standing, and takes the form of periodic ‘challenges’ in which their students compete. This time one of the magicians, Henry Bowen (aka Prospero the Enchanter), pits his young daughter Celia against Marco, an orphan chosen and trained by the other magician, known only as Alexander, or Mr A. H-. Celia and Marco know there is a game, but do not initially know that they are competitors, or how the outcome will be decided. The venue for the game is to be a production organised by a wealthy theatrical entrepreneur, Chandresh Lefèvre, and that production is the Night Circus – sometimes known as Le Cirque des Rêves.

The circus simply appears in various far-flung locations. It is open from dusk to dawn. It contains some apparently conventional circus acts, such as a contortionist, trapeze artists (who work without a net) and a fortune teller, but there aren’t any clowns and very few performing animals. Instead, there things like a hall of mirrors, an ice garden, a wishing tree and a cloud maze. Patrons have a ‘magical’ experience, in the sense of amazing or wondrous, but don’t understand the foundation of the circus as magical in the paranormal sense. ‘People see what they wish to see. And in most cases what they are told they see.’  For the two competitors, it is an opportunity to showcase their magical skills. This is ‘actual magic disguised as stage illusion.’ But is there a price to be paid for mixing magic and reality? Who will pay it?

The basic story of the magical challenge is augmented by the stories of other characters who are either creators of some of the non-magical aspects of the circus, such as the clock maker, Friedrick Thiessen, performers like Isobel the fortune teller, and lovers of the circus like Bailey, a young American drawn into its ambit. All have a part to play, but the use of magic may or may not work out well for them. Magic has ramifications. As Celia notes, the game is about ‘how we deal with the repercussions of magic when placed is a world that does not believe in such things.’

The story, which is told in the present tense, jumps backwards and forwards in time, though only over a limited period. I’m not sure why Morgenstern has chosen to do this; possibly to add to the sense that the circus lies outside normal time. She is perhaps reinforcing through narrative form the idea that though magic can’t reverse time, it can make it be experienced differently. There are also short sections throughout that describe the experience of the circus, as if addressing a member of audience, as in ‘You watch the performance from this precarious vantage point, directly below the performers.’ This is intended to give the reader a sense of involvement, but also has a structural purpose made clear at the end.

Some reviewers (here’s one, anyway) have found the story slight and overly sentimental, and the characters, though suitable to their part in the story, not particularly memorable. I found it helped to think of it as a romance, with obstacles to be overcome, and somewhat set parts for the main characters. Certainly it is not a drama asking profound questions. So what did I like about it? I liked the circus. It is a beautifully imagined alternative reality, there for the reader to explore in a very visual way. And the book does raise interesting considerations about the relation between competition and collaboration, collusion and manipulation, fate and freedom. In the words of the Guardian reviewer who liked it (see above), The Night Circus ‘poses questions about the essential connection between fantasy and reality, and the human need for the former for the sustenance of the latter.’ It’s not at all like any other book about magic I’ve ever read.

This is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel. She’s also, perhaps not surprisingly, a visual artist. You can read more about her here. A film of the book is said to be ‘under development’.

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Frances Osborne has written two biographies and one novel, all of which are set in the first half of the twentieth century. The biographies, of which this is the first (2004), are both about ancestors of hers, in this case her great-grandmother. She seems blessed with interesting relatives.

Osborne’s great-grandmother, Lilla was born in 1881 in what the English who settled there called Chefoo – now called Yantai, in Shandong province of China – then a treaty port, the origins of which Osborne explains in detail. Indeed, the whole story is a fascinating blend of events in Lilla’s life and events and processes in the wider world. Lilla, who was 102 when she died, lived in China, India and England during the Boxer rebellion, the First World War, the great depression, the rise of Hitler, the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, and the Communist victory in China. Osborne does a good job of succinctly inserting the relevant information into the story of Lilla’s life. This she presents as an ongoing series of obstacles to be overcome in terms of both circumstances and relationships, with an underlying drive to compete with her identical twin sister Ada.

The centrepiece of the story is the cookery and household hints book, now lodged in the Imperial War Museum in London, that Lilla wrote while interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. In both freezing and boiling temperatures, and often nearly starving, she wrote out on an upright typewriter (the mechanics of which Osborne explains for those too young to have experienced them) hundreds of recipes for the food that she had loved in her life before the war – Lilla’s feast. Some are recipes for Chinese and Indian dishes, but most of them are for traditional English fare, including hearty roasts, delicate sandwiches and cakes and desserts that were as far from her current existence as can be imagined. How she found the strength to do this is amazing and heart-warming. It’s a book which ‘makes you believe that if you could fill your mind with a cream cake or anything delicious then you could transform the bitterest experience into something sweet and shut out the things you needed to forget.’

Osborne has used a variety of evidence in putting this story together. Not much of it comes directly from her great-grandmother, though there are documents and photos that provide the bare bones of her story. There are some official records. Not surprisingly, given that their families were scattered across the British Empire in India and China, many of Lilla’s relatives were copious letter writers, and some of these have survived. Letters between the twin sisters, though there must have been literally thousands of them, have not. Relatives and friends provided recollections. And though Lilla rarely mentioned her time in the internment camp, other inmates have written accounts that explain what it must have been like for her.

But for all that, there are gaps in the story, as Osborne readily admits. There are many times when she has to resort to how Lilla ‘must have’ or ‘would have’ felt, and to what she ‘perhaps’ thought or did. ‘I have had to deduce how it must have felt to Lilla to be in a certain place, at a certain time,’ she writes. ‘I closed my eyes and could almost see and hear what must have happened to her. Could imagine what she might have thought and felt.’ Well maybe. We know that biography always has an element of fiction to it, and here that element is larger than usual. Osborne also heightens the tension, and supports her version of Lilla’s life as a roller costa by alluding to future problems ahead, so there are phrases like ‘little did Lilla realize’, and mention of ‘the terrifyingly high hurdles yet to come’. In such ways, Osborne makes it her own story, as well as Lilla’s.

Is it only because Frances Osborne is the wife of George Osborne, British Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, deeply unpopular because of his enthusiastic dismantling of the British welfare state, that I am questioning the narrative template she has applied to her great-grandmother’s life? Outside of the known facts, Osborne can, of course, present her great-grandmother any way she chooses. But by emphasising her as a homemaker and hostess, someone with a love of food and entertaining within the expatriate community, Osborne precludes the idea that Lilla could be seen as a colonialist trespasser on Chinese sovereignty, an exploiter of China’s people and resources. Presumably Lilla didn’t think of herself like that; Osborne certainly doesn’t credit her with much geopolitical insight, writing for example that ‘It didn’t occur to her that the treaty ports might simply cease to exist’. Osborne explains her various returns to China, and stubborn refusal to leave, as attachment to the land of her birth, and the location of the fruits of her enterprise. They could equally be seen as a blinkered and ignorant clutching after money and status in the face of circumstances that common sense might suggest could only end in disaster. Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and maybe no one could reasonably have been expected in 1939 to see the repercussions of the Japanese invasion of China, or in 1949 to have understood the implications of a Communist victory against the Kuomintang. It is in many ways a lovely book, especially if you turn Lilla’s life into ‘something sweet’ and ‘shut out the things you needed to forget.’

You can read more about Frances Osborne and her work here.

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Dogstar Rising (2013) is the second in a series of crime stories set in Cairo featuring Makana, a former police inspector from Sudan who has fled to Egypt for political reasons, and now works as a private detective. I should probably have read the first in the series first – that is, The Golden Scales (2012) – not so much because it’s necessary to understand the characters or the plot, but because this one’s so good that I regret not building up my acquaintance with Mr Makana from his first case. There is one unexplained friendship that I assume dates from the first book, but it doesn’t really matter to the story.

It is Cairo, 2001. The scene is set in a prologue in which doubt and uncertainly surround the appearance of what some people claim to be an angel. Is it a good or bad omen? Has it anything to do with the deaths of a number of children in the slums of Cairo? The story then moves to the case Makana has been asked to investigate. Some letters quoting verses from the Koran have been received in the offices of the Blue Ibis travel agency. Are they a threat against a business which brings ungodly, alcohol imbibing tourists into Egypt? Who might have sent them? There is no thought of contacting the police; ‘You don’t involve officialdom in any of your business because there was always a risk it might attract the wrong kind of attention.’ But the investigation soon takes a sinister turn, and Makana finds that he is involved in all sorts of trouble from men on the make, organised crime and the National Security service. It’s a complex story, but cleverly plotted and quite convincingly resolved. As I’ve noted before, private detectives can’t end their case with an arrest, and have to find other ways of dealing with the enemies they make. Bilal does this quite creatively, leaving some ends untied, presumably to be taken up in later books.

In addition to the poverty, violence and crime that seem to characterise Cairo, Bilal sets his story against the very real background of the uneasy relations between Egypt’s Coptic Christians and the majority Muslim population. You can read the sad history of these relations here. There is also discrimination against a Muslim scholar who seeks to place some elements of the Koran in historical context. Makana himself has little religious faith. But there are others who are happy to stir up hatred against the minority Christians, and invoke acts of violence against them. Bilal does an excellent job of conveying the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a society that is being constrained by a repressive state, where corruption is commonplace and where fundamentalist religion is used to maintain a dictatorial elite in power. ‘It’s a smokescreen,’ says one of Makana’s friends, ‘the same old method of pretending nothing is wrong with our society.’

Makana’s status as an outsider allows him to look with a clear, if somewhat jaundiced eye at Egyptian society. He notes, for example, that the tour guides ‘seemed to regard their charges with contempt, as if by the very act of coming here and paying handsomely for the experience, they qualified to be treated like idiots.’ Reading the official newspaper ‘was to enter into a fantasy world of fairy tales and deceit.’ On the other hand, Western music ‘was a form of foreign domination that made you yearn for Suez again, for revolt of any kind, to free the country of this subservience.’ But he regrets his exile. ‘The need to belong was perhaps no longer as powerful as it might have been but it was still there, like an appendix, an evolutionary relic that serves no real purpose but was lodged in the body as a reminder you had to live with.’ I find Makana a thoroughly sympathetic figure. There is a whole cast of others lovingly crafted characters as well.

Given the quality of the writing I’ve quoted, it may not come as a surprise that Parker Bilal is a pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub, a mixed race writer of British and Sudanese parents who has already published seven literary novels. These achieved decent reviews, but few sales. However he says that he hasn’t turned to crime writing purely to make money; ‘crime writing,’ he says, ‘has audience, so it allows me to write. It’s a pressure valve to release stories that would otherwise go untold.’ Makana reflects something of Mahjoub’s own family’s circumstances. Born in London, he was brought up in Khartoum, where his father ran an English-language newspaper. When his father was threatened with imprisonment, his parents settled in exile in Cairo. Visiting them there, Mahjoub felt ‘that all the ingredients for a revolution were in place, with the inequality and state repression. It felt like France must have felt before the French Revolution.’ This is the feeling he conveys so well in this book.

You can read more about Jamal Mahjoub and Parker Bilal here. He intends to write a series of eight further Makana stories, going up to the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011. Definitely one to watch out for.

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Lots of people have labelled The Magicians (2009) and its sequel, The Magician King (2011) ‘Harry Potter for grown-ups.’ Reading The Magicians, I couldn’t help comparing it with the Harry Potter stories – the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in particular. But the deeper allusion is to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

Quentin Coldwater is a nerdy teenager from Brooklyn trying to decide which college he should go to. Without really meaning to, he finds himself accepted by Brakebills, the Ivy League of American colleges of magic. The early part of the book follows his experience of making friends with other students and learning magic. After graduation, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. But then he is offered the chance of adventure. Quentin, and most of his friends, grew up immersed in the fantasy world of Fillory, described in a series of five books in which a family of children visit an alternative world. What if Fillory really exists?

You can see at once that there is plenty of room for literary allusion. Brakebills and Hogwarts share a number of similarities, though Brakebills doesn’t go in for wands or broomsticks, and has a game called welters, rather than quidditch. Learning magic is not always interesting and takes a lot of hard work at both schools. The characters have obviously read the Harry Potter books; for example there’s a reference to fixing up Hermione’s teeth. But the parallels with Narnia are more fundamentally important in driving the plot in the second half of the book. This is not to say that the story follows that of Lewis’s Christian epic; it is rather a counter narrative. Nevertheless Grossman has been criticised for leaning too heavily on these two sets of stories; you can read his defence here. Personally I rather enjoy the references. There are others too, mischievously waiting to be noticed; example, to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when one character speculates whether a porn magazine for intelligent trees would be called Enthouse, and to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King when Quentin is turned into a goose. No doubt there are lots of others, like the Dungeon and Dragons ones I don’t really recognise.

Quentin is certainly no Harry Potter. Although Harry suffers some teenage angst in The Order of the Phoenix, he is not a generation y character. Quentin is. This is reflected in his and his friends’ views of the world, and how they talk about it. After graduation, they live a purposeless, hedonistic life; their command of magic brings them no pleasure, and they have no interest in using their powers to some useful end. Their response to the idea of a flower that makes you happy if you smell it is to wonder what they could sell it for – ‘that would be worth bank here.’ Another friend wonders if they will have the chance to ‘experience a world that has not yet been fucked up by assholes.’ But they have no sense of social responsibility. Quentin seeks happiness that always seems just beyond his reach; what was his heart’s desire, once achieved, seems unsatisfying. Indeed his life is spiralling out of control; in a drunken state he even betrays his girlfriend with another member of the group. Quentin concludes that ‘he’d thought that doing magic was the hardest thing he would ever do, but the rest of it was so much harder.’ He keeps hoping that ‘everything broken was fixable’, but is he capable of fixing anything?

I didn’t find the first half of the book very satisfying. It’s true that most of the things that happen at the school and in the period after graduation are in some way linked to what happens later, but the story takes a while to develop and I found myself wondering where it was all going. But be assured it does go somewhere. Obviously I’m not going to tell you what happens, but the second half of the book is much more sophisticated than the first. The characters, though no less self-indulgent, become more interesting. For example, using the device of Fillory allows, maybe even requires, the characters to wonder if they are in a story, when their reality is already mixed up with magic. This is a clever literary ploy. About half way through the book, Quentin claims ‘You don’t just go on adventures for good causes and have happy endings. You’re not going to be a character in a story; there’s nobody arranging everything for you.’ There is, of course – the author. But can he make them more than just characters in a pre-existing story? And so we read on to find out not just what will happen, but whether Quentin and his friends can actually take responsibility for their actions and begin to understand themselves.

I’m not sure you can say that this book is for grown-ups, and Harry Potter isn’t. They are both clearly coming of age stories – though J.K. Rowling has five books to bring Harry up to speed, and Grossman is trying to do it all in one. Presumably Quentin is a work in progress, and we’ll need to read the sequel to see how he works out. You can read more about Grossman here.

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Some time ago I reviewed The Hidden Assassins, by Robert Wilson, noting that it was the third of a quartet of crime stories featuring Chief Inspector – Inspector Jefe – Javier Falcón, of the Grupo de Homicidios of the Seville police. This is the first in the series, published in 2003.

Falcón has worked as a homicide detective in most of Spain’s large cities. He returned to Seville to be near his father Francisco Falcón, a famous painter, who has since died. He is considered cold and clinical in his approach to his work. So what is it that so profoundly affects him this time about the crime scene he is called to? A man has been murdered in a gruesome way, but he has seen worse. ‘Then what is this thing thundering away in my chest?’ he wonders. There are a number of threads in the dead man’s life that could have led to his murder – his relationship with his wife, his business interests, his sexual tastes – but Javier becomes convinced that the explanation lies in the man’s more distant past. He finds a photo of his father among the man’s belongings, and this sends him on an exploration of his own family history. For the first time since his father’s death, he goes into his studio, where he finds journals his father wrote over many years. It is soon clear from them that he knew the murdered man well. But the journals also shed a frightening light on his father’s life and character. How will this help solve the crime? And can Falcón stop himself sliding into a state of psychological disintegration long enough to work on it?

If you accept the premise that the original crime knocks Falcón off his balance and turns him back to his own family history, then the story works well. There are all the avenues of investigation of the murder for the police to work through, one of which turns out to involve internal police politics. Then there are more murders. Falcón’s relationships with his brother and sister and ex-wife also feed nicely into the story. And then of course there is what he learns from the journals. You might wonder where all this is leading, and naturally there are a number of dead ends. But be patient; Wilson knows where he’s going.

There is much more than a police investigation in the book. Javier’s father’s journal entries go back to the thirties, and though them we see a slice of Spanish history of the darkest kind, both in Europe and in Morocco, which is interesting in itself. I don’t know how accurate it is, but I found Francisco’s comment on International Zone of Morocco fascinating; he sees it as a place ‘where a new sort of society is being created’, a society where ‘there are no codes’, where its ‘untaxed, unruled business affairs … are played out in its society’s shunning of any form of morality.’ It seems a fitting setting for his father’s story. Javier hopes in the journals to discover why his father’s creativity seemed blocked in his later years, and also hopes to fill in gaps in his own memory. The idea of a mind refusing to remember hurtful experiences is probably not very sophisticated psychology, but it works well enough here, as does Javier’s overwhelming need to reassure himself that his parents loved him. I found the process of his unravelling to be quite convincing, even if what started it off is a bit arbitrary.

Wilson says he has a strong sense of place, and this is reflected in his depictions of both Seville and Tangiers. Even the festivals of Seville play a part; Falcón’s investigation takes place around Easter, and he is profoundly upset when he twice finds himself in the midst of Easter processions, though he doesn’t’ know why. I have to confess though that I skipped over the description of the bull fight; it was pretty obvious what was going to happen.

I think the major weakness in the story is the villain, who is too clever by half, and barely sketched in as a character. Maybe this is Wilson being very clever, and suggesting his characters carry their own destructive demons inside them; there is thus no need to need to write in detail about their nemesis. But I think it’s more of a case of needing to sustain the suspense.

You can read more about Robert Wilson and his work on his informative website. After the Seville quartet, he has moved on to a new character with plots set in London, and there are earlier series set in Portugal and West Africa. A TV series, Falcón (2012) has been made, based on the first two Falcón books, this one and The Silent and the Damned (2004). The series looks worth seeing – it was recently shown on SBS in Australia – though I did read that the characters all have English accents, undermining what should be a strong Spanish flavour.

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Tim Winton is one of Australia’s best known and most acclaimed writers, having won the Miles Franklin prize for fiction four times (in 1984, 1992, 2002, 2009) as well as a number of other literary awards. Eyrie (20013) is his most recent book.

Tom Keely, at a very low point in his life, has retreated to a seedy apartment at the top of the shabby Mirador high rise block in Freemantle. His wife has thrown him out and he has lost his job as an environmental campaigner for reasons never fully disclosed. He has cut himself off from former friends and acquaintances, tries to avoid his family, and seems to be only interested in finding some sort of oblivion through pills and alcohol. One day he encounters a neighbour, Gemma, who recognises him as someone she knew when they were children. She has clearly had a hard life. She has a young boy with her, Kai, who for some reason catches Keely’s attention. Is his interest in Kai going to be enough to anchor him back in into ordinary day-to-day existence? Or is involvement with Gemma and the boy going to make his situation worse?

Some critics have described this as an ‘almost thriller’, but don’t look for page-turning action. The book is mostly about the ebbs and flows of Keely’s resolve – whether he can even make it down the street for a coffee – let alone contemplate a future. Winton’s plot development is clever, as Keely becomes unintentionally involved in a world outside his experience – and any competence he might have once had. But there is a problem to be solved, and Keely is sort of on a quest to solve it, so I guess it is sort of a thriller. But I think it is more a book about family; his relationship with his mother and sister, his memories of his dead father and his desire to protect Kai are what drive the action. He has ‘no tribe to claim him but family.’ I didn’t understand the end, though.

It’s no coincidence that Keely has been an environmental activist; Winton, though a very private figure, is deeply committed to a number of environmental projects. I suspect Keely’s dystopian vision of Western Australian is also Winton’s: its highest aims are ‘to drill, strip, fill or blast.’ It is ‘the nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as virtue, quick to explain its short comings as east-coast conspiracies.’ Winton writes wonderfully about landscape, often hot, arid and forbidding, but sometimes majestic, even uplifting. You have to love his description of Fremantle: ‘dazed and forsaken at the rivermouth, the addled wharfside slapper whose good bones showed through despite the ravages of age and bad living … spared only by a century of political neglect. Hunkered in the desert wind, cowering beneath the austral sun.’

Though I find Winton’s writing powerful, I nevertheless had at times to force myself to continue reading. And here I come up against a problem that I know others have had with the book. Keely is not a character I was able to care about. I’m not suggesting that readers should like the subjects of literature – far from it. Obviously we aren’t supposed to like him; he is presented as sunk in his own self-pity. ‘He lacked the gumption to set things right, he was too accustomed to the logic of defeat.’ He knows this is what his mother Doris thinks, though she doesn’t say so. ‘Her view was undoubtedly this: that by now her only son could reasonably be expected to pick himself up amidst the wreckage of his life and make something new happen.’ She thinks he is ‘shopping in despair’s boutiques.’ I’m with Doris. His continually self-destructive behaviour simply got on my nerves. Gemma, however damaged, is at least doing her best. And Keely does try sometimes; he still believes in love, the ‘one shred of faith he wouldn’t let go of.’ I can see there is black humour in some of his stuff-ups. It may be that I am blinded by my own prejudices here. But equally, it may be that Winton has created a character that is predictably feckless to point of caricature. Most reviewers don’t agree with me; this one praises the book for its ‘openness to the abject and unlovable’, and this one, concedes that Winton’s character can be ‘flawed and sometimes exasperating’, but thinks this may make readers ‘care about them more than you should’. Well, it didn’t work that way for me.

There’s a lot more richness to the book than I’ve suggested here, and it is worth reading just for the power of Winton’s writing. There is the extended metaphor of falling – ‘there’s no feeling as sweet as falling’ – the bruised innocence of Kai, the theme of birds, the exploration of the male ego and violence, Keely’s relationship with his dead father – and much more. Maybe I’m talking myself round to liking it ….

It’s probably not surprising that Winton doesn’t have a web-site. You can find some minimal information about him here.

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