Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

This book was published in 2003, but its subject matter remains only too relevant in Australia today. It is a bitter indictment by Keneally of Australia’s policies towards asylum seekers.

The story begins with the narrator visiting a detention centre – one of the ‘double-walled gulags’ established to house refugees who arrive in Australia without having observed the proper migration protocols. Keneally doesn’t name the centre, but it is clearly Villawood in western Sydney. And he doesn’t try and hide his contempt for the way Australia deals with asylum seekers: ‘a tyranny of chance to match the tyranny of intent or danger they had run from, floated or flown away from’. Keneally’s narrator is there to visit an asylum seeker from an unnamed country which is obviously Iraq. This man is in limbo – ‘the government would neither give him asylum nor send him back to his country, for fear of what the regime would do to him.’ After several visits, the man tells the narrator how it was he came to seek asylum, and his story forms the body of the book.

The asylum seeker chooses to be known as Alan Sheriff. This is not really to protect friends back in Iraq; rather it is a device Keneally has adopted to remind the reader that asylum seekers are no less human than Australians or other westerners. As Alan says, how different might things be if the prefix to asylum seeker names was Mac rather than Ibn? The book was written at a time when the Australian government was actively seeking to dehumanise asylum seekers in the aftermath of the Tampa affair, when the government refused permission for the Norwegian freighter Tampa, carrying 438 rescued refugees from a distressed fishing vessel, to enter Australian waters.The device is maintained throughout the story Alan tells; everyone in it (except for the dictator, who is only ever called the ‘Great Uncle’) has an Anglo name. Alan, furthermore, is a writer who comes from the intellectual elite of his country. He and his friends have a social life very like any group of intellectuals anywhere: dinner round the pool, coffee and discussion of the World Cup. Of course life isn’t the same; they live in a brutal and arbitrary dictatorship. But they have the same hopes and fears as anyone else.

Alan’s story is set in the mid to late nineteen nineties – at the time of telling, he has spent three years in Australia in various detention camps. He had fought as a conscript in the war against the Iranians, called here ‘the Others’. He made his reputation as a writer of short stories about that war, though he chose to empathise bravery and endurance rather than the reality – including the use of poison gas – which he reveals to the narrator. He has also written a nearly completed novel about the effect of the sanctions imposed by the West after the first Iraq war. Unsurprisingly the sanctions had a detrimental effect on ordinary poor people – ie most of the population – and were routinely evaded to the enrichment of the dictator’s family and friends. ‘The book,’ Alan says, ‘was intended as a paean and an elegy for the valour of those who maintain the dignity of their hunger in the face of crazy international measures, aimed to undermine Great Uncle, but cutting like a buzz-saw through less elevated people whose chief politics were … endurance.’ The sanctions also play an important part in Alan’s own story. Keneally makes his view of them pretty clear.

Alan says the story of why he had to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere is the ‘saddest and silliest’ story imaginable. Sad it certainly is, but not silly. There are a number of factors that force the decision upon him. It is his position as one of the relatively privileged members of the society that initially puts him in danger from the intolerable demands of the Great Uncle. Others who displease the regime are more summarily dealt with, but that doesn’t make Alan’s position any easier or safer. The fact that there is a preposterous humour in his situation just shows how clever Keneally is being. But Keneally is too subtle a writer to show Alan fleeing purely because of direct actions of the tyrant; his own conscience ultimately decides his destiny. Alan sticks with his judgement of sad and silly, compared to the stories of other refugees, who, he says, ‘have been involved in genuine tragedy’. Readers might not agree with his assessment of his own situation.

Keneally’s novel, published in June 2003, was perhaps overshadowed by the invasion of Iraq by the ‘coalition of the willing’ – including of course Australia – in March 2003. It became official that Iraq was a rogue state. But identifying Saddam Hussein’s regime as a cruel dictatorship (no weapons of mass destruction having been found) didn’t improve the situation for Iraqi refugees in Australia, where their stand against the dictatorship counted for nothing. And though for a time, the processing of refugee claims and their resettlement were speeded up, Australia has now reverted to an even more draconian approach, with further attempts by the current government to dehumanise and even criminalise refugees. For all its passion, The Tyrant’s Novel seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears.

You can read more about Tom Keneally here. And if you’d like to read something more about the fate of asylum seekers in Australia, try this.

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Craven (2014) is the second crime thriller by Adelaide-based writer Melanie Casey. Casey uses a crime-writing device that I wouldn’t normally accept, but she uses it well, and overall I enjoyed the book.

This is a stand-alone thriller, but it would probably have been a good idea to read Hindsight (2013), the first in the series, before tackling this one. It sets out the circumstances and relationships of the main players, and these continue into this story. But Casey has done a good job of filling in the back-story, so it’s not really a problem.

What is more of a problem for me is that the main character, Cassandra Lehman, is a psychic, and comes from a family of psychics. I assume the name Cassandra is a joke – the mythical Cassandra had the power of prophecy but it was her fate never to be believed. This one has a psychic ability that enables her ‘to experience how people died when they passed suddenly or violently’. Her mother is ‘precognitive’, and her grandma is a ‘healer’. In the previous book, she used her power to help the police solve a murder and nearly died in the process.

This time she has moved from the country town where she was living to Adelaide to take up a job as a tutor at Adelaide University. She just wants to get on with her life. But even while she’s looking for a place to live, she has a vision of someone being murdered in the apartment she is looking at. And when her students find out about her ‘gift’, she is instantly notorious. Some of the attention she receives is most unpleasant.

The second strand of the story is essentially a police procedural, carried by Detective Ed Dyson from the previous book. He has moved to Adelaide for a stint in the Major Crimes Unit, and he is soon involved in a death that may or may not be murder. The man who has died left a list of names; could they be in some way connected with his death? Is he going to ask Cass to help him again? How will that go down with his colleagues? And what does he feel about her?

The two strands of the story are woven together cleverly, and Casey develops enough suspense to keep me reading on quickly to find out what happens. The baddie is quite well concealed for most of the story.  And not all of the detection depends on Cass’s gift. Casey writes well, in a lively modern idiom. There are some writers whose powerful language has me in awe of their talent, and there are some who write perfectly competently, but not that much better than I can myself. Casey is one of the latter – though admittedly I haven’t actually written a book, and she has written two. Her characterisation is good, which is important because sympathy with the characters is as important as suspense in keeping my interest.

I think Casey gets away with the psychic device because she presents it as a problem for Cass. She has accepted that her ‘visions’ are part of ‘who I am’, but it’s not a comfortable part. ‘I was a disaster when it came to being normal,’ she reflects.  Cass is overall an engaging young woman and the reader is on her side, which makes her psychic ability if not fully acceptable, at least less problematic. It’s part of the story, not just a way of solving the crime. But when Ed says at one point that for the first time he ‘fully appreciated how hard it was for Cass to try and make people believe in what she could do’ I had agree that it would indeed be hard, and had to cling to my willing suspension of disbelief – though I managed to do so.

As I noted in a post on Knitting, by another Adelaide writer, Anne Bartlett, it is pleasant to be able to visualise the setting of the story, all of which is very familiar to me. But I still wonder how a non-Adelaidean would react, and whether knowing the location makes me lazy about drawing out the setting from the description given. I know what the disused wool sheds at Port Adelaide look like – a great place to set a scene in a crime thriller. But am I seeing that, or is the writer putting it there? On the less pleasant side, Adelaide has been – unfairly of course – called the murder capital of the world, and Casey has reprised some famous Adelaide murders in her story – the method, not the actual case, though fortunately the Snowtown murders aren’t there.

I’ve been writing this post as if everyone else agrees with me that believing a psychic can solve crimes is farfetched. I don’t know what Casey really believes, but here’s a thoroughly debunking entry on psychic detectives.

You can read more about Melanie Casey here. Her book is published by Pantera Press, and will be released on 1 June.

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This memoir (2006) is a sequel to Godwin’s earlier book – Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (1997) – about his childhood and coming of age in Rhodesia – later Zimbabwe. This one covers the years 1996 to 2004, with flashbacks to 1924 and 1940. Godwin is now a reporter living abroad, mostly in New York, and the book records his experience of going back to Zimbabwe on assignment and/or to visit his family. It is thus an account of his observations on the state of the country, and of his relationship with his family, particularly his ageing father.

His view of the state of country under the rule of Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party is easy to sum up: it’s terrible, and getting worse, with the fastest declining economy in the world. He argues that at the time that black majority government was achieved in 1980, when the new Prime Minister Mugabe welcomed white settlers to stay in Zimbabwe and help build the nation, there was a hope of creating a prosperous multiracial society. But that hope has vanished, as Mugabe has increasingly used attacks on ‘Western imperialism’ and incitements to racial hatred to defeat opposition to his progressively more tyrannical government. It is, for example, a crime to bring the President into ‘ridicule or disrepute’. Zimbabwe is in effect a one party dictatorship.

At the time of majority government, the land of some white farmers was seized by so called ‘war veterans’ who may or may not have fought in the war for Zimbabwe’s independence.  I noted in an earlier post on Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight (2002) by Alexandra Fuller, that though her family lost their farm at this time, by 1990, 70% of arable land was still owned by whites. Godwin identifies Mugabe’s defeat in the 1990 constitutional referendum, and the rise of Morgan Tsvangirai’s multiracial Movement for Democratic Change, as the catalyst for unleashing a virtual war on white farmers, using the so-called war veterans. And he argues that increasingly, it was cronies of Mugabe who ended up with the land. Corruption is endemic. The examples that he cites are many and distressing. The land taken from farmers in his examples is wantonly wasted. As a consequence of the disruption of commercial farming, he sees widespread unemployment among the thousands of black farm workers, food shortages and scarcity of just about everything. To call inflation rampant is an understatement: by 2004, a local stamp costs $2,300 in the Zimbabwean currency.

Why do his parents stay? His father is a retired engineer, his mother a doctor. They see their friends killed or driven away, and experience violence and extortion at the hands of armed intruders. The police do nothing; the rule of law seems to have broken down completely. Godwin’s sister has left, in fear of imprisonment or worse. But to his parents, Zimbabwe is home. Just exactly how far this is true is one of the most interesting aspects of the memoir, and accounts for the flashbacks to 1924 and 1940. Godwin’s father George has always been a little remote, and scarcely ever talks about his past. He does not tell his son until 2001 that he is in fact not English by birth. Rather, he is a Jewish Pole, who happened to be in England when World War II broke out, and thus was not swept up in the Holocaust that killed his mother and his sister, his father only surviving through the kindness of a Polish friend – his former barber. Godwin’s mother is English – his parents met at university after the war, which George fought in as a member of a Polish regiment based in Scotland. Africa seemed a good place to make a new start, so he became George Godwin, not Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb. Now there is nowhere to return to, even if they wished to do so. After his father’s funeral – we know from the prologue that he dies during the period of the memoir – Godwin realises that ‘finally, in this most unpromising of places, where he [his father] could never be regarded as truly indigenous, finally, he belongs’.

There is little overt comparison between the situation of the white settlers in Zimbabwe and the Jews of Poland, but including the stories of the brutalities suffered by both in the memoir makes comparison inevitable. Godwin is not saying that the scale of the disasters is remotely similar, but I think he is saying that dictatorship and racial hatred produce misery and injustice where ever they exist. But he ends on a note of something like hope: through his dictatorship, Godwin says, ‘Mugabe has managed to create something hitherto so elusive; he has created a real racial unity … a hard-won sense of comradeship, a common bond forged in the furnace of resistance to an oppressive rule.’ Let’s hope he’s right, though current divisions within the MDC don’t give much ground for optimism.

This is memoir, not history. Godwin’s powerful and empathetic writing has the reader thoroughly onside, but naturally he writes selectively. He doesn’t, for example, talk much about Mugabe’s persecution of African people from tribes other than his own, which probably amounts to ethnic cleansing. Nor does everyone agree that the ‘land reform’ program has been as unsuccessful as he suggests – though even now, Zimbabwe can’t feed itself. ‘Do Africa’s problems reside principally in the continent’s underlying environment, or with imposed colonial distortions or with the travesty of Africa’s post-colonial leadership?’ Godwin poses the big questions, but doesn’t really try to answer them, except through the prism of his own experience.  Such, maybe, are the limits of memoir.

For a detailed account of Mugabe’s regime and its history, try this. Nothing seems to be getting much better – for example try this. For more information about Peter Godwin, here is his website. It advertises his new book – The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe (2011).

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The Black Box (2012) is I think the sixteenth in the series of American police procedurals featuring Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department. For the last five books, not counting the one he shares with Connelly’s other series hero, defence attorney Mickey Haller, Bosch has been working in the Open-Unsolved Unit. This is a clever device, as it allows the author to place the hero outside the daily homicide detective routine, but still within the departmental setting of the police procedural. It is probably also easier to think of convincing scenarios if you can use past as well as present events.

The cold case has become a popular form of TV  crime drama over the last fifteen years – think Cold Casein the US, and New Tricks and Waking the Dead in the UK. The ostensible reason for this is that technological advances, in DNA and ballistics in particular, have given law enforcement agencies new ways of solving old crimes. But I think cold case dramas also play to the popular hope that the victims of crime will eventually be vindicated and their murderers brought to justice, thus restoring a sense of social order – and a confidence in police forces all too often lacking in reality.

Both the technological advances and the desire for justice for the dead are strong themes in The Black Box. The story starts with a preface set in 1992, amidst the riots that followed the exoneration of the white police officers who had allegedly assaulted black motorist Rodney King – here’s the footage, just to remind you. And here’s some footage of the rioting. Bosch and his colleagues in the Homicide branch are overwhelmed by the number of murders that occurred during the riots, sometimes as a direct result of the violence, and sometimes as score settling between rival street gangs taking advantage of the chaos. Bosch attends the scene of the murder of female Swedish journalist and photographer, where the only real clue is a bullet casing he finds near her. The team has little time even to document each crime scene, and do not get the chance to go back and follow up their initial investigation because this job is handed to a special taskforce set up after the riots. Few of the murders are ever solved, and this one is no exception.

When the LAPD decides that it would be good public relations to be able to announce the resolution of some of the unsolved murders on the twentieth anniversary of the riots, Bosch asks for this case, as he has always felt guilty about failing the victim. And the bullet casing he found back then might just lead him to the killer. Can he find the ‘black box’ of the title, the ‘one thing that brings it all together and makes sense of things’?  But is he even looking in the right place? And what about the politics? Does the LAPD really want the only twenty year old case to be solved to be the murder of a white woman, when all the other victims were black?

The story follows Bosch’s dictum that ‘law enforcement work is ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent adrenaline’, as he methodically follows the initial clue of the bullet casing from one piece of evidence to the next. There are also loving but sometimes inept interactions with his teenage daughter, who now lives with him – remember he didn’t even know he had a daughter until just a few books earlier, and then she was kidnapped. He is also seeing a woman he met in an earlier book, and continuing his love affair with jazzman Art Pepper. The action – the one percent adrenaline – comes with a bang at the end – ‘screaming high intensity moments of life-and-death consequence’. The threads of the story come together well, and if there is perhaps something a bit contrived about it – well, that’s pretty much true of all crime fiction. Remember John Buchan’s comment quoted in an earlier post that the detective fiction writer starts with a conclusion and then works back to invent a story that leads to it.

Many people would agree that Connelly deserves the accolade on the cover of the book as ‘the greatest living American crime writer’ not least because of his capacity to keep on turning out well crafted, satisfying crime thrillers. But as I noted in a post about the previous Harry Bosch story, The Drop (2011), some of his earlier books, such as The Narrows (2004) or A Darkness More that Night (2001) have more flare about them. Perhaps, after all, Harry is getting too cautious as he gets older.

You can read more about Michael Connelly, and the forthcoming Harry Bosch story, here. And of course there’s all the Micky Haller books as well.

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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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